Remembering Destiny Deacon: 'Warrior woman' and one of the world's best photographers (2024)

This year's NAIDOC theme is Keep the Fire Burning! Blak, Loud and Proud.

Warning: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that this article contains the name and images of a person who has died.

Destiny Deacon — the artist who coined the term "blak" — died in May, leaving behind a startling legacy that goes far beyond that term.

"She was also an outlier, a quirk of the art world, whose strikingly original vision and prolific output over 30 years found her an international audience," explains Daniel Browning, host of ABC RN's The Art Show and the ABC's editor of Indigenous Radio.

"She was deeply political and unashamedly blak … She was a warrior woman, a larger-than-life character with an outrageous sense of humour, who would quietly join the ranks of the world's elite photographers."

Remembering Destiny Deacon: 'Warrior woman' and one of the world's best photographers (1)

The artist was working up until the day before she died, aged 68, after a long illness.

"A self-taught rule-breaker, who found beauty and horror in the everyday, she was a cultural phenomenon," says Browning.

'Material everywhere'

Deacon was born in 1956 in Maryborough, Queensland, a descendant of the G'ua G'ua and Erub/Mer peoples.

After her family relocated to Fitzroy in 1958, Deacon's mother, Eleanor Nain, became actively involved in Melbourne's Aboriginal community.

"Destiny's sense of injustice was very keen, and I think she inherited that from her mother," Browning says.

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Deacon didn't set out to become an artist, instead studying politics at university. By the 70s, she was an out lesbian despite the very real threat of hom*ophobic violence at the time.

"Destiny never walked away from who she was," says the broadcaster.

In the 80s, she became a teacher and then joined the public service, working at the Department of Aboriginal Affairs.

She only came to art in her 30s, starting off making videos featuring well-known Koori community members. She became primarily known as a photo media artist, but rejected the dark room, instead choosing polaroids.

As she told an audience at the Art Gallery of NSW in 2008: "One of the reasons I got into photography is because a lot of the white photographers, especially in the 1980s, were taking pictures of young naked Black kids and lily ponds and diving off bridges … and I thought, 'bugger this!'

"We're not seen as real people."

She later expanded her practice to film, sculpture and installations.

Deacon's friend and curator Natalie King says visiting her home in Brunswick was like "walking into her world".

"There was Aboriginal kitsch, ceramics, posters, crates, there was so much 'crap' as she used to call it [everywhere] that … her bed ended up being in the middle of the living room," King recalls.

"So we'd all sit around the bed and there were boomerangs, there was just material everywhere."

Remembering Destiny Deacon: 'Warrior woman' and one of the world's best photographers (3)

In 2004, King curated the first survey exhibition of Deacon's work — Walk & don't look blak — for Sydney's Museum of Contemporary Art. It included a recreation of Deacon's living room.

'Because it's Destiny'

"[Deacon was] the first artist to creatively reuse Aboriginal kitsch: to make it the stuff of high art," says Browning.

The artist called it "Koori Kitsch" but it's also known as Aboriginalia: mass-produced household objects (tea towels, dolls, plaster heads, tableware) with often racist depictions of Indigeneity.

For a long time — particularly at the height of their popularity in the 50s and 60s — these were the primary ways many were exposed to images of Indigenous Australians, before these objects were consigned to op shops in the 80s.

"[Before Deacon] no one had seen [Aboriginalia] as art. No one had seen these objects as having any potential as the starting point in a conversation about race," says Browning.

"People were hiding them at that stage, but she was collecting them, she was hoarding them."

Deacon told RN's Awaye! program in 2004: "You feel sorry, you see these poor little black dolls lying there in those flea markets and you try to rescue them, because no one wants them."

She'd then cast the dolls in scenes of suburban melodrama, which humorously explored racism, violence and power. Often these scenes highlighted the chasm between cartoonist representations of Indigenous Australians and their real lives.

"[Deacon] always wanted to tell the story of how racist it can be in Australia and her own experience," says King.

"It was remarkable how she was able to animate a doll and elicit an expression of … sadness or longing or sorrow from a doll."

Humour runs throughout Deacon's work, with a special eye for the absurd. Take her 90s polaroid of the entrance to Melbourne's Luna Park, which she titled Whitey's Watching.

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Browning suggests: "It became this comment about surveillance and about how you have to enter the jaws … and become the thing, you have to be integrated by the body to become truly Australian."

He says he was always drawn to Deacon's "acerbic critiques" of Australian culture and "the starkness with which she depicted Black/white relations".

In other works, Deacon photographed well-known Indigenous creatives and activists, including Eva Johnson, Gary Foley and Richard Bell, in scenes that recreated colonial imagery and moments from Australian art history.

Remembering Destiny Deacon: 'Warrior woman' and one of the world's best photographers (5)

"Everyone believed in her … [they thought] let's get involved because it's Destiny," says Browning.

Blak excellence

In 1991, Deacon titled a photograph Blak Like Me and, in the process, birthed a new spelling of Black.

Browning explains: "Blak, rather than Black, was her kind of rejoinder to being called a black C[***] her whole life. So she took the C out of Black and turned it into something political."

It caught on.

"It turns Black into a four-letter word, so it has this status of being like four-letter words like the C word and F word … it's got power and aggression and it's got something raw. It's like: don't mess with us."

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Deacon was an inner-city blak artist, who claimed to hate the bush.

"She was tired of being regarded as lesser than because she was in the city … [but] she never went to the desert to paint. She never saw herself as anything but someone from the inner city, who was engaged in the real world, who lived our pop culture," Browning says.

"By coining the term 'blak' she created an identity for urban Blackfellas, people who might not have language or what they call 'culture', but who do," Browning says.

Although Deacon had to lead the way as an urban Indigenous contemporary artist, many are now following in her footsteps, including Karla Dickens and Tony Albert.

Albert told The Art Show: "Destiny represents what blak excellence is, and it is what we all strive for as artists. She dreamt big, she pushed boundaries, and she reshaped and defined a new dialogue in contemporary Australian Art."

Quandamooka artist Megan Cope described Deacon as "our matriarch of contemporary urban Aboriginal art and cultural expression … She kicked down the doors to the art world for us, young artists, to walk through".

In 2022, in recognition of her international standing, Deacon was awarded the Royal Photographic Society's prestigious Centenary Medal — previous winners include Nan Goldin, Annie Leibovitz and Hiroshi Sugimoto.

Remembering Destiny Deacon: 'Warrior woman' and one of the world's best photographers (6)

Her legacy has another personal element for Browning.

Deacon often made work about her sexuality and gender, including Me and Virginia's doll (Me and Carol), 1997-04 — her self-portrait as Frida Kahlo holding a doll of Virginia Fraser, her long-time collaborator and former partner.

"She made the world safer for people like me, Black queers, just through the very fact of her existence and her visibility as an artist," says Browning.

Allowing the art to speak for itself

In what would become the last major international presentation of work in her lifetime, Deacon was a key artist to the 2023 Sharjah Biennial, curated by visionary Nigerian curator the late Okwui Enwezor, who had also selected her for the groundbreaking Documenta 11 in 2002.

In one work for Sharjah, Reading Room, she hung racist slogans, posters and ads alongside a map of Aboriginal Australia.

"She always wanted to tell the story of how racist it can be in Australia, and her own experience [of racism]," says King.

Yet despite that desire to tell these stories, Deacon herself often spoke self-deprecatingly about her work and shied away from the spotlight. As a result, Fraser would sometimes step in to theorise and intellectualise the artwork.

"Destiny refused to speak in the terms that we love to speak in … in 'artspeak'," explains Browning.

"[But] no one else was making these kinds of statements [that she was making through her work]."

As she told an audience at the Art Gallery of NSW in 2008: "As a photographer, it's important that I try to take an image that no one else has thought of or taken before."

While Browning was well-acquainted with the artist, both personally and through her work, he was never granted an interview.

"I think she believed in the power of simplicity in her messaging … She liked the art to speak for itself: there's not a lot that Destiny could give you that the image didn't give you, she was pretty forthright.

"That's her legacy: You hear her voice very clearly in the work."

Remembering Destiny Deacon: 'Warrior woman' and one of the world's best photographers (2024)
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