Gary Lee is a Larrakia artist, born and raised in Darwin, which is situated in Larrakia country. An anthropologist, artist, writer and curator, Lee has been an active participant in and promoter of Aboriginal arts since the early 1980s when he worked as a freelance fashion designer in Sydney. Having moved to Sydney to undertake studies at the Sydney College of the Arts, he arrived a year too early (his enrolment was for the following year) and so busied himself working alongside fellow ex-Darwinite Andrew Trewin to produce a line of clothes – strictly evening and cocktail wear. Some of these incorporated Lee’s Aboriginal designs and were initially sold through Paddington Markets and eventually a retail outlet under the label Trewin Lee in Centrepoint Tower and later, the Imperial Arcade. Lee eventually commenced studies at the Sydney College of the Arts, majoring in glass and painting, however he left after a year to devote himself to fashion design.
After a few years in Sydney, Lee tired of the bright lights and returned to the Northern Territory where he began working as a trainee Aboriginal arts advisor with Chips Mackinolty at Mimi Arts and Crafts in Katherine. This brought Lee in contact with a wide range of Top End Aboriginal artists, and enabled him to indulge his love of the Top End bush. One of the more memorable Mimi Arts shows, which he co-curated with Mackinolty, was Fine Feathered Friends (in fact, Lee’s first as curator), an exhibition of around 200 pieces of Top End fibre and body adornment art which 'took Sydney by storm’, Lee recalls, when it was shown at Paddington’s Coo-ee Gallery in the mid-1980s. This was followed by a sequel exhibition (with around 400 works) the following year at the Aboriginal Arts and Crafts Company in The Rocks, Sydney (then managed by Gabriella Roy and Ace Bourke, with Hetti Perkins as a trainee). Working at Mimi Arts crystallised Lee’s decision to undertake tertiary studies: firstly, as a Cultural Heritage Management student at Canberra’s College of Advanced Education, and then transferring to the Australian National University to undertake a Bachelor of Arts degree with Honours in Anthropology.
It was while studying Cultural Heritage management that Lee entered the Canberra Fashion Awards (1986), taking out the major Overall Design Award for “a stunning black evening dress with padded shoulders and a bodice falling gently into a wide band of glittering beading and sweeping the floor in a full skirt”, as described by journalist Pollyanna Sutton (The Canberra Times, 23 October, 1986). Lee’s dress also won the Adult Evening Dress section.
While at the Australian National University, Lee also undertook internships at the National Gallery of Australia (their first Aboriginal intern, under the guidance of curator Wally Caruana) and the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. Upon graduating, Lee went straight into a job at the Australia Council for the Arts as a project officer for Indigenous Performing Arts. After having spent five or so years studying 'down south’ he soon, however, gave in again to the call of the north, returning home as a Larrakia anthropologist to commence a research position at the Northern Land Council. During this time he was also working on a play which drew on the story of his maternal heritage. This play, Keep Him My Heart: A Larrakia Filipino Love Story , eventually premiered in Darwin as a musical (complete with a Rondalla – Filipino guitar orchestra) in collaboration with musical director Christian (Bong) Ramilo. The production effectively brought Lee’s skills as writer and set/costume designer to the fore.
In 1993, Lee began work on his photographic series Nice Coloured Boys , an allusion to Tracey Moffatt’s Nice Coloured Girls short film and in respect to her early encouragement of his artistic pursuits. It is Lee’s photographic work which has brought him most recognition as an artist. Nice Coloured Boys began as a project in Bangladesh, India and Nepal, initially as a way to reconnect with the region: India in particular was a country which resonated deeply with Lee from his first visit there in the ’70s, a visit that in fact became a two-and-a-half-year stay, living and working in Calcutta. It was partly the sense of belonging in a black country that made Lee feel so at home in India; the fact that many Indians reminded him, physically at least, of relations and other Aboriginal people in Darwin. And it was the physicality of the men that Lee wanted to celebrate with his Nice Coloured Boys series, to subvert Western stereotypes of male beauty and to explore other nuances of Aboriginal identity and art. In an article for Art Monthly Australia , Lee explains:
...after the discovery of what I call my fluid identity I took advantage of this immediate rapport. If they wanted to believe I was Indian, Nepalese or even Assamese, it was easier to let them think that. I enjoyed slipping in and out of identities, and passing as one of them, even if they actually accepted that I was indeed a parytak (tourist), it was still fun to go along with the whole game. After all, I thought to myself, what does an Aborigine look like? (Gary Lee, 'Oh, boy! The portraits of Gary Lee’, Art Monthly Australia , June 2006, No. 190, p. 35.)
In 1998, Lee’s portrait series Bablu, Milk Boy (from Nice Coloured Boys ) was published as one of the artist profiles in Photofile magazine. The theme for this issue, 'Happy Snaps’, perfectly suited Lee’s street photography methodology and also the fluid, in some eyes problematic 'dichotomy’ of local/tourist which underpins this series. At the suggestion of later Editor of Photofile , Alasdair Foster, Lee produced the Skin series, in which he placed himself in the frame, 'passing’ as Indian or Nepalese alongside men from these countries. Some photos from this series were subsequently reproduced in Photofile , with a black-and-white rendition also featured in “More Than My Skin” _(2008), a groundbreaking exhibition curated by Djon Mundine focusing on Aboriginal male photographers.
Lee began full-time doctoral studies in 2005 under a scholarship at Charles Darwin University, Darwin. Initially, this was a research degree examining Larrakia iconography and aesthetics from colonisation (with the establishment of Darwin in the late 1860s) to the present day. Eventually it became a practice-based degree as, around the same time, Lee’s photography also came to reflect a combination of contemporary and historical Larrakia subjects. The catalyst for this was partly his involvement as co-curator (with Sylvia Kleinert) in an exhibition celebrating Billiamook (after whom it was titled), who was a key Larrakia figure in the region’s contact history. In this exhibition Lee displayed a portrait of his nephew, Shannon, alongside a portrait of Billiamook by the colonial photographer Paul Foelsche. Both Billiamook and Shannon are photographed at around sixteen years of age; both exude physical prowess. Lee’s portrait, later reproduced on the cover of Artlink magazine (an NT themed issue, 2005, Vol. 25, No. 2), became the basis of a diptych. A similar diptych, Mei Kim and Minnie (2006), was created with Lee’s portrait of his niece, Mei Kim, alongside a Foelsche portrait of Lee’s great, great grandmother, Minnie Duwun, which was first shown in the inaugural “TogArt NT Contemporary Art” exhibition.
Lee’s venture into portraits incorporating his own family paralleled his foray into other Aboriginal portraits, more as an extension of his Nice Coloured Boys series. To some extent he had already been doing this (even while making frequent trips to India to continue Nice Coloured Boys ) as a way of documenting Aboriginal gay and transgender communities. From 2004, however, he began a discrete, ongoing series called Nymgololo – a Larrakia word for young man/bachelor – which focused on Aboriginal men in Darwin.
In October 2007, Lee was in Canberra for the opening of the Culture Warriors exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia when he suffered a life-threatening stroke. It is ironic that 2008, a year in which he was undergoing extensive rehabilitation, was one of his busiest in terms of exhibition commitments including his very first solo exhibition, Maast Maast , at Darwin’s 24HR Art NT Centre for Contemporary Art ( Maast Maast is a Hindi term meaning 'sexy’, 'mischievous’ or with some element of mystique). This exhibition was largely a selection of past work from the Nice Coloured Boys , Skin and Nymgololo series, and surprising as his first solo show in light of a fairly impressive publishing and (group) exhibiting record. In some ways this irony is testament to the immediate power and validity of Lee’s photographic project but it also indicates an appreciation that photography is but one of his various artistic caps.
Maast Maast was followed by a number of other solo exhibitions by Lee in Darwin, Canberra, Brisbane, Melbourne, Clifton Hill (NSW), Perth and Auckland. It was also followed by many significant group exhibitions including nationally and internationally touring exhibitions. In 2002, as a seven-time finalist in the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards, Lee was awarded the Works on Paper Award for Nagi (2022), a photo-based tribute to his grandfather Juan (John) Cubillo who was tragically killed in the 1942 bombing of Darwin at the age of 36.

O'Riordan, Maurice
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