Arguments and Prayers: Deborah Kelly’s Cultural Citizenship
It’s a Wednesday night. The shops in Sydney’s Central Park are closed, but the art spaces and studios on the mall’s third floor are buzzing with activity. In one studio, volunteers of all ages hunch over a large square table cutting images from old National Geographic magazines and picture books: flowers, butterflies, African masks, the Queen. Others hover around a second table on which lies a life-size nude photograph of a lithe and handsome young Nigerian-born Australian, Emmanuel. Emmanuel is one of nineteen people chosen from two hundred and thirty members of the general public who put their hands up to feature in ‘all their glory’ in Deborah Kelly’s No Human Being Is Illegal (2014); a collaborative work of photography and collage commissioned by the 2014 Biennale of Sydney.
The twenty year old had told Kelly he imagined himself portrayed as a “giant African nature god.” And so flowers blossom around his toes, on which a small giraffe perches, looking warily, it seems, at the crocodile creeping down his leg. His neck is wreathed in snakes, caterpillars frolic on his cheekbones and his upper body releases a flock of colourful butterflies into the ether. One of the project’s worker-bees tentatively places a cut-out of a turquoise-blue snake against Emmanuel’s upper arm. It looks like a bracelet and is stunning against the mahogany of his skin. Everyone coos. Kelly appears delighted but doesn’t assert her opinion: she wants the work to be genuinely collaborative.