Another art war is brewing in Sydney, this time over homophobic graffiti featured in an exhibition on Cockatoo Island for the 2008 Biennale.
The government-funded exhibition included an installation by indigenous artist Vernon Ah Kee that has been referred to the Anti-Discrimination Board for racial and homophobic vilification.
The installation, called The Skin That I Live In, consisted of removing the partitions from a toilet block and exposing the 20-year-old graffiti written by wharfies naming several men as cocksuckers, in addition to racial vilification against Mediterranean immigrants.
In response to a complaint from a viewer, Biennale of Sydney organisers placed a warning sign that the work includes offensive material and is not suitable for children.
Bruce Thompson, a gay man from Sydney who made the complaint to the Anti-Discrimination Board, said the offensive graffiti should have been removed when first discovered, not re-exposed to cause further hurt.
When I went, there was no mention of an [artwork] name, all it said was Vernon Ah Kee, Thompson told Sydney Star Observer.
There are lots of people who are gay in the inner-west as well as people of Mediterranean decent, and for many this [graffiti] is offensive.
It should never have been approved by the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority and the state government for re-use by an artist with the graffiti intact.
Biennale CEO Marah Braye said the work for the Biennale in Sydney said the graffiti had heritage value and the installation was intended to highlight the racist, homophobic and prejudicial attitudes of the dock workers and Australia.
He’s using it to highlight racism and look at racism as it occurs beh-ind the scenes. It’s a denunciation of the vulgar and racist language used by the dockworkers on Cockatoo Island at the time, Braye said.
Although it is of historic value the artist is underlining that these attitudes still permeate contemporary culture.
It continues the themes of Ah Kee’s other works, she said, such as his portraits of family members which were also intended to disturb.
Ah Kee declined requests to explain the work.
Thompson said he would seek compensation to go to charities in the gay and Mediterranean communities, including the Luncheon Club and Twenty10.
info: The Biennale is on display at the Museum of Contemporary Art and Cockatoo Island until 7 September. Further details about the work and opening hours are available at www.biennaleofsydney.com.au.

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