Destiny Deacon is a Melbourne based photographer, printmaker, mixed media artist, installation artist, broadcaster, writer and performer. She has shown her work in over 120 exhibitions in Australia and internationally.
Destiny Deacon was born in 1957 in Maryborough, Queensland. Her heritage is of the K’ua K’ua and Erub/Mer people of the Torres Strait Islands. She was raised in Melbourne and today lives and works out of her lounge room/studio in Brunswick, Victoria. In 1979 she received a Bachelor of Arts degree, majoring in politics at the University of Melbourne, and in 1981 she received a Diploma of Education from La Trobe University, after which she worked as a history teacher in Victoria’s secondary and community schools, and as a tutor and lecturer in Australian Writing and Culture and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Cultural Production at Melbourne University. Inspired by her mother, Deacon eventually followed her passion for politics and became one of ‘Charlie’s Angels’, working for Aboriginal activist Dr. Charles Perkins as a staff trainer in Canberra, before beginning her professional photography career in 1990.
Destiny Deacon’s family ancestry can be traced back over one hundred and fifty years to William Pitt, Prime Minister of England from 1783 to 1804, who fathered children by one of his slaves in Kingston, Jamaica. Deacon’s parents were Eleanor Harding, a Torres Strait Island woman from Darnley Island, far north Queensland, and Jack Harding, a white wharf labourer from Maroubra, in Sydney’s south. In 1956, they settled with their children in the Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy, amongst a community of Aboriginal people that had been established in the period between the two world wars. Many Indigenous people, and merchant seamen from around the world were drawn to the area because of work opportunities and Fitzroy became an important social and cultural hub. Soon after arriving there, however, the Harding couple separated and Destiny and her siblings were raised by their mother. Despite living in poverty the family survived with the support of the tight-knit community.
Eleanor first became politically involved in Aboriginal community affairs in the 1960s, through the Aborigines Advancement League with which she campaigned for citizenship during the 1967 referendum. She eventually became involved in Indigenous Women’s issues through the United Council of Aboriginal Women. Diagnosed with cancer in 1996, Eleanor died that same year leaving behind seven children, seven grandchildren, and a much-celebrated life dedicated to the fight for Aboriginal rights. Deacon’s siblings include Clinton Nain, a renowned visual artist, dancer, performer and storyteller, and writer, performer and broadcaster Johnny Harding.
Deacon became interested in photography at an early age, snapping pictures of family and friends with a Kodak Instamatic camera. It was not until she was in her 30s, however, that she began her professional photographic career, seeing it as a way to express herself and her political beliefs. A self-taught artist known primarily for her photographs and videos, she also works in the mediums of installation and performance, as well as in writing and broadcasting. Considered one of Australia’s leading Indigenous artists, Deacon’s work subverts the kitsch knickknacks of her own domestic life to expose the racial politics of post colonialism still at work within contemporary Australian society. Much of her work aims to ‘rescue’ and elevate collectible objects of ‘Aboriginalia’ that she finds derogatory. Employing what she describes as low-budget techniques, Deacon uses her own brand of complex humour and scathing wit to play on common Indigenous clichés. She says about her work: “I like to think there’s a laugh and a tear in every picture.” Her photographs often place a black dolly in the role of protagonist, acting out narratives that explore notions of gender and sexuality. Deacon embraces the immediacy of Polaroid photography and other low-tech methods, which imbue her images with a strong visual aesthetic. Her constructed photographs create imaginary worlds, and operate as stage sets upon which her characters reenact scenes of oppression. The work addresses issues of poverty, racial discrimination and alienation, and exposes the lingering effects of Australia’s violent colonial history.
Tired of white photographers’ limited depictions of Aborigines, and eager to express her own views visually, Deacon launched her exhibition career in 1990, and it quickly gained momentum. She held her first show, ‘Pitcha Mi Koori’, as part of the Melbourne Fringe Festival, and in 1991, her work was included in ‘Aboriginal Women’s Exhibition’, curated by Hetti Perkins, at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney. Her work Tax free kangaroos, included in the 1991 exhibiton ‘Kudjeris’ at Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Cooperative, saw the beginning of her use of dolls and souvenir toys as subject matter. Throughout her work, Deacon focuses primarily on people, interchanging portraits of friends and relatives with inanimate dolls, using both to invert the colonial gaze and overturn the use of the Aboriginal figure as object of curiosity. Deacon describes her work as being ”about (re)creating a world of my own outside my own world.”
Her first solo exhibition, ‘Caste Offs’, was held in 1993 at the Australian Centre for Photography in Sydney, concurrent with a show by artist and curator Brenda Croft. In 1994, her work was included in several group exhibitions in Australia, including ‘Blakness: Blak City Culture!’ at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art in Melbourne. Also that year, her video Welcome to My Koori World was included in the show ‘An Eccentric Orbit: Video Art in Australia’ at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The piece was part of a sequence of videos created with fellow artist Michael Riley, in which they play zany characters in an absurdist melodrama, filmed almost entirely in a kitchen setting. Screened by ABC TV as part of the 'Blackout’ series, the videos were amongst the early mini-television soap operas popular with Indigenous viewers.
1994 was also the year that Deacon participated in the fifth Havana Biennial in Cuba, in an exhibition entitled 'Tyerabarrbowaryaou II : I shall never become a white man’. The show was curated specifically for the Biennial by Fiona Foley and Djon Mundine and included other prominent Aboriginal artists such as Ron Hurley and Robert Campbell Jnr. Following the hugely successful show of the same name, originally exhibited at the MCA in 1992, it was the first exhibition of contemporary Aboriginal Art to be commissioned by the MCA and it eventually toured throughout eastern Australia. Deacon’s 1997 solo exhibition, ‘No Fixed Dress’ at Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi in Melbourne was held in conjunction with the Melbourne Fashion Festival. The title of the show refers to the Aboriginal reggae rock band, No Fixed Address, whose song lyrics romanticise the ‘Aboriginal Woman’, but whom Deacon strips of any nostalgic notions. The 1998 show ‘Postcards from Mummy’, held at the Australian Centre for Photography, documented Deacon’s voyage to her mother’s homeland in the Torres Strait Islands, a poignant retracing of her mother’s life two years after her death.
In 2001, Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery in Sydney featured her photographic work for the first time, in the exhibition ‘Forced into Images’. The photographs follow the life of an Aboriginal girl, from childhood to adulthood, through a dark landscape fraught with domestic violence. The semi-autobiographical series draws its title from a quote by Alice Walker, the African American author and poet: 'I see our brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, captured and forced into images, doing hard time for all of us’.
Deacon’s work was featured in a solo exhibition, ‘Walk & don’t look blak’ curated by Natalie King, at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney in 2004. The first major retrospective of her work, the show displayed the breadth of her practice, including works of photography, video, installation and performance. The exhibition subsequently toured to the Ian Potter Museum of Art at Melbourne University, the Adam Art Gallery and the Wellington City Gallery in Wellington, New Zealand, the Tjibao Cultural Centre in Noumea, New Caledonia and the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography in Japan. Deacon’s work was included in the survey ‘2004: Australian Culture Now’ at The Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne, for which she was commissioned to create a film for the programme 'Neighbours (the remix)’. With the help of her frequent collaborator, Virginia Fraser, she produced the absurdist Aboriginal comedy Over d-fence, a series of hilarious sketches performed by friends and family members. Situated in a suburban backyard, the work’s subtle details evoke the ‘horror signifiers’ of Australia’s colonial past. A looped cord hanging next to a black doll, for example, creates a haunting juxtaposition - the simple detritus of mass culture rearranged into a nightmarish scene.
In 2008, Deacon participated in the 16th Biennale of Sydney, entitled ‘Revolutions – Forms That Turn’. Again working with Fraser, she created an installation specifically for the Biennale, the provocative piece Occupied, which was situated in the Botanical Gardens. A long-time friend of Deacon, Fraser is a Melbourne-‐based artist,curator, and writer, and since first joining Roslyn Oxley9 in 2001, the pair has shown work there nearly every year. Together they have created works such as Fence Sitters, a series of photographs and woven works, including cushion covers and carpets, shown at the Melbourne Art Fair in 2008. Destiny Deacon’s work is held in most major Australian museums, as well as in international collections, and she is represented in Europe by Galleria Raffaella Cortese in Milan, Italy.