Destiny Deacon is one of Australia’s most acclaimed contemporary artists, whose political visual art complements her achievements as an Indigenous rights activist and educator.
In 1959, aged two, alumna Destiny Deacon boarded the Overland train with her mum and baby brother. They’d left behind her dad, a wharfie, at a South Australian port, and were on their way to start a new life in Melbourne.
Arriving in the city, they headed straight to the Royal Exhibition Gardens. Destiny remembers the gardens as a gathering place for Aboriginal people.
“It was a social place and also a place for those who slept rough. My mum had trouble finding accommodation – her skin was really, really dark,” she says.
Destiny’s heritage is of the Kuku of far north Queensland and the Erub/Mer people of the Torres Strait Islands. As her mum struggled to find a permanent home, Destiny recalls being welcomed by other new arrivals.
“We finally got somewhere to live, at boarding houses. The first was at Balaclava, where the Jewish people took us in. Most of them were straight from the Holocaust. My mum grew on that experience, with the old people talking around the table, learning about man’s inhumanity to man,” she says.
Eventually, the trio were afforded ‘a bit of luxury’, moving into a brand new Housing Commission flat in Port Melbourne. Here, she found a sense of belonging within a culturally diverse community and developed a strong sense of play.
“Mum wouldn’t let us sit at home. She’d say, ‘Get out of the house’, so we’d go out to the beach at Port Melbourne and play, or walk along the bay to St Kilda and play there,” she says.
At Station Pier every week, there’d be a boatload from Europe and other countries, plus the British migrants as well, and there were so many kids to play with. I grew up alongside children from different backgrounds, speaking different languages and eating different foods. We played well together – and lots of naughtiness went on, too!
Destiny was also immersed in the social and political world of Indigenous life. She remembers her mum, who was active in the Aboriginal Advancement League, hosting fundraisers and meetings about Aboriginal affairs.
“Since our first days in the Royal Exhibition Gardens, my mum had a love for the Victorian Aboriginal community. She had lots and lots of friends. Our house in Port Melbourne, especially, was party, party, party – you’d put a BBQ on and people would fundraise for places like Lake Tyers [an Aboriginal community in Gippsland].”
Teaching and activism
As an undergraduate student, Destiny was inspired by her mum’s activism and studied politics, gaining a Bachelor of Arts from The University of Melbourne. Later, she worked with the newly created Equal Opportunity Unit of the Commonwealth Public Service Board, where she inducted and trained young Indigenous workers into public service roles.
Over time, however, Destiny decided that a teaching qualification would help her tackle educational disadvantage and better support her Aboriginal community. In the early 1980s, with the help of financial support, she came to La Trobe University to study a Diploma of Education.
“I did the course at La Trobe and it was a fantastic experience. The teachers were really wonderful and the coursework was challenging. Everyone I knew was poorer then, but we got by. With study grants, I could afford to pay rent and even dance to famous bands at pubs and fundraisers,” she says.
I majored in teaching disadvantaged students, which was something I could relate to, I suppose. I did my placements at really rough schools – ooh, some of the language! My lecturers and tutors were well-versed in teaching unruly students, though, and they kept my attention with methods I still use to this day.
After graduating from La Trobe, Destiny forged a rewarding teaching career. First, she worked as a teacher in Victorian secondary schools and Aboriginal community schools. Next, she became one of ‘Charlie’s Angels’, working as a staff trainer for Aboriginal activist Charles Perkins AO in Canberra.
Later, she became a part-time tutor and lecturer at The University of Melbourne. There, she taught subjects in Australian Writing and Culture, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Cultural Production. But her ongoing desire to express her political views would soon lead her to make another career move.
Taking ‘blakness’ global
In the late 80s, Destiny began shooting video. Her first video, Home Video,was made with an Open Channel VHS video camera and featured her, her housemate and one of her younger brothers. The shift would mark the beginning of her 30 year career as an artist, using humour and wit to challenge common Indigenous clichés, parody her surrounding environment and subvert objects of 'Aboriginalia' kitsch.
“I became an artist to tell stories of being an Indigenous Australian: colonialism, poverty, racism, sexism. I started taking trips interstate and the allure became a lot of fun, meeting all sorts of people in the art world and living the artist’s life.”
In 1990, Destiny started taking photographs like Koori Rocks and Gub Words. She showed them in an exhibition with friends called Pitcha Mi Koori, which marked her debut at the Melbourne Fringe Festival in 1991.
In 1991, her work featured in the Aboriginal Women’s Exhibition at Sydney’s Art Gallery of New South Wales. In 1993 she held her first solo exhibition, Caste Offs, at the Australian Centre for Photography. And it was around this time that Destiny coined the terms ‘blak’ and ‘blakness’ – words now used widely to describe contemporary Aboriginal identity and experience.
Since then, Destiny’s work has been displayed in over 120 exhibitions around the world, including the fifth Havana Biennale in 1994, the first Johannesburg Biennale in 1995, the Yokohama Triennale in 2001, ‘Documenta 11 Kassel’ in 2002, and, in 2004, a major solo showcase at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art called Destiny Deacon: walk and don’t look blak. She’s been named Visual Artist of the Year by the The Deadlys (2009) and received the inaugural Yalingwa Fellowship (2018) for her significant contribution to the Indigenous community and contemporary art.
In November 2020, the largest retrospective of Destiny’s work, Destiny, will open at the NGV. Described by the National Gallery of Victoria as encapsulating Destiny’s ‘darkly comic worldview', the exhibition will feature newly-commissioned pieces alongside more than 100 multi-disciplinary works, ranging from photography and video, to sculpture and installation.
Looking back on her career, Destiny is proud of the opportunities her La Trobe degree gave her.
I’m glad I got a Diploma of Education at La Trobe University. It opened up my life. Teaching has taken me all over Australia and some places overseas. Now, having been a visual artist for 30 years, I still haven’t forgotten how important teaching is.
She strives to keep educating people and hopes ‘others keep learning,’ including through her art.
“I’m still sharing the knowledge I’ve learnt, but also the stuff I feel. I hope other people can get that feeling too, you know? Pass it on. Why not?”
Photo credit: Kim Kruger
Last updated: 10th November 2020