A Young Black Kangaroo
Dean Qiulin Li
19.08.2021 - 18.09.2021
Richie, 2019, Dean Qiulin Li
In A Young Black Kangaroo, Li documents some of the stories of Woolloomooloo’s public housing community. Through intimate portraits of residents and their homes, created over two years from 2018, the artist challenges stereotypical misperceptions of public housing tenants.
Li draws attention to how public housing supports lower income-earners to live decently in society and explores the evolving character of the community. A community under pressure as the amount of public housing stock declines and entry thresholds defined by ‘need’ are raised ever higher.
Long a site for battles over commercial development and the protection of accessible inner-city housing, Woolloomooloo is today a place where wealth and poverty co-exist. The Sydney suburb is often known for Finger Wharf, a fashionable harbourside complex offering expensive apartments, fine dining and hip bars. The area is also, however, characterised by a high density of public housing and significant gatherings of homeless people.
Living in Woolloomooloo
There is something both beautiful and terrible about Woolloomooloo. I felt it on the first day I arrived as if I had always lived here. I felt drawn to it, welcomed, then possessed by it. I was finally home, yet the people I encountered in Woolloomooloo seemed on edge. It is not like other areas of the inner city, and over the years I have realised that human history has some how been imprinted energetically into the land, onto the streets, into the bricks and mortar, and that energy vibrates under the houses and in the laneways. I sense it mostly at night. The energy shifts as soon as my feet hit Cathedral Street. It is a definite change I feel in my spine as my shadow dances on the pavement when I walk home in the dead of night. I peripherally glimpse other more mysterious shadows that vanish when I turn towards them and then a living stillness watches me. Woolloomooloo is one of the most haunted places in Sydney. The atmosphere is dense with it - a presence of which very few notice unless it wants you to notice.
The shoreline used to start at Cathedral Street. The house I live in is built on Gadigal land. The whole area used to be an Aboriginal hunting ground, a mangrove and an estuary, so Woolloomooloo is historically and culturally significant to the Gadigal people. It was once a place for Indigenous ceremonies. Stories from the 1800s tell of two or three hundred people who lived in Woolloomooloo and nearby at the Domain. Traces of that community are found in cave paintings that survive to this day, although the development of Woolloomooloo obliterated the original population. I mean, who knows what is buried under these homes? The Aboriginal people were brutalised all over Australia, so I doubt it would be any different here in one of the first settlements in Australia. Woolloomooloo means either 'good hunting' or 'burial ground'. No one can agree on which. From the ghosts I've encountered here, I think it's the latter. This place is filled with Aboriginal spirits. It’s a history you can feel in your spine, disconcerting for a stranger but not to me because this is my home, and it feels as if it has always been my home.
We had huge old-growth trees and owls here once. Powerful Owls began roosting here in Woolloomooloo. Very few saw or cared about the owls. No one looks up anymore. I tried to save the trees they lived in and was told the trees were dangerous, and some people even suggested the owls weren't real. Yes, I was accused of lying even though I documented their arrival and tried my best to create an awareness of the owls. When the trees were felled and the owls were gone, part of my soul was felled with them.
After 25 years, I feel trapped here, as if I cannot extricate myself from the complexities of urban village life. Woolloomooloo public housing is above all a village - where everyone thinks they know everyone and everything about them. For every blessing, there is a problem to be dealt with here. It is as if the single most cursed thing that ever happened to me was moving to Woolloomooloo. After twelve years on a waiting list, my number came up, and I was assigned a 19th-century worker’s terrace, which I love. The moment I walked into the house, I knew it was mine. I had waited so long that I forgot I’d applied. Back then, I had a two-year-old child and lived and worked in the city. I was a young and talented artist with everything going for me, and I was overjoyed to be finally housed with a lifetime lease. No one could evict us. I was secure at last. However, I was hated in this neighbourhood when I first arrived and for many years after. A confident, attractive inner-city artist in a public housing estate was rare, and a lot of people did not like me. I've been vilified, ridiculed, judged, physically attacked, had my home set on fire, undermined and underestimated. I’ve experienced such significant psychological trauma in Woolloomooloo that my career, which had begun to shine, was completely sabotaged.
After ten years of being confronted by ignorance, violence, apathy, addiction, mental illness, ingratitude and negativity, I wanted to get out of the public housing system. Even murder has been committed here, deeply traumatising the community. It has been little more than cruel to me, save for a handful of kind people that I now count as friends.
Woolloomooloo surpasses any average level of neighbourhood dysfunction. There are a handful of reasonable people and a few great charities that do excellent work with the homeless and the poor, but in the end, poverty is a state of mind.
I have wanted to move out of the public housing system for some time now – ever since they changed the rules and stopped offering the houses for sale to tenants, which was a foolish policy move. I almost succeeded in leaving on a few occasions, thwarted by the system and a handful of jealous people. I’ve been attacked, at times continuously, until I could no longer do or enjoy my work. This is a truth about Woolloomooloo public housing that few can accept. It’s an artist-killer and an anti-motivator, when it should be the opposite. It should be, and still could be, an affordable urban oasis for creative professionals – if we ever get an able government that understands the concept of 'creative capital', urban culture and appropriate placement policy.
This is Woolloomooloo. It’s prime real estate. People in the private sector salivate over it. The conservatives want it privatised, so that their property values increase, properties they bought cheaply because of the proximity to the homeless, homeless services and a public housing community. They want it sanitised and gentrified and, at times, I don’t blame them. Some days I want the same, but we have a legally binding protection in place called the Tripartite Agreement. The only way this public asset can be sold is if local, state and federal governments are in simultaneous agreement. Conservative state and federal governments have been desperate to get rid of Sydney mayor Clover Moore who supports and protects these communities and has always done so.
For now, I am here with the ghosts and the ancestors, living and creating in my 1840’s terrace on Gadigal land.
Rozee Cutrone is a Woolloomooloo local resident, artist and writer
Within Wanderer’s Eye
China-born, Sydney-based photographic artist Dean Qiulin Li’s first research survey project – A Young Black Kangaroo – is a series of documentary photographs focusing on public housing residents in Woolloomooloo. Woolloomooloo is a Sydney suburb with two divergent vibes – fancy prime real estate buildings overlooking the harbour and, adjacent, public housing and homeless communities. Despite their relative proximity, it seems, in Li’s words, like an invisible wall separates these two worlds.
Andrea and Her Sons, 2020, Dean Qiulin Li
The name Woolloomooloo may have been derived from wallabahmullah, a local Aboriginal, possibly Gadigal, word meaning a young black kangaroo. Li uses this translation as the title of his project to reference the area’s colonial history. Li’s project started as a documentary series including images of rich and poor families; the artist aiming to reveal Woolloomooloo’s social inequalities. He filmed first with residents from local public housing, as he knew many of them through his work. And as he got deeper into his research, Li became fascinated and attracted by these people. Their lives were completely different from what he had imagined, and he changed his project to focus exclusively on documenting the public housing community.
Li is masterful in constructing his visual narrative. Concise vignettes of each subject, including images of both the person and their domestic environment, reveal the story of their lives. His delightful sketches, and particularly his emphasis on details, embrace the viewer tactfully and delicately, like the feel of a winter sun or the sound of a stream in a forest. And while the visual experience of each portrait is singular, they are unified through a shared atmosphere.
Browsing through the entire A Young Black Kangaroo series, it’s like you’re out visiting your neighbours. Li tells stories as if reading a book to you, carrying you along with memories and emotions. Richie, the former drag queen, sitting in his lounge room, framed by mementoes of his glory days. Bruce Lee’s primary school classmate, Rayson, with his striped shirt styled with those glasses, reminding viewers of his splendid teenagehood. Normal, everyday moments, an abandoned trolley or a chair hanging on a tree, increase the sense of déjà vu. Layer by layer, Li connects personal stories to create a history of Woolloomooloo’s public housing community.
It is Li's sensitivity and delicacy that allowed him to create sympathetic, nuanced portraits. He began his creative process by forming strong connections, even friendships, with each subject. Li carefully recorded details of his interactions with those he photographed and he frames his images with short texts recording momentary events or fragments of conversations that reveal the sitter’s personality. His subjects emerge as ordinary, like everyone else, but also vivid and real. For the viewer, Li’s connection with each work’s protagonist creates a sense of intimacy and trust that leads to a deeper and more delicate understanding of the work.
In A Young Black Kangaroo, Li incorporates interpretations of both visual expression and social research: the former embodied in the image recording the essence of things and the latter arising from the humanistic care behind the image. The theme of division runs through the series, drawing our attention to the divergent living conditions of people in the same area. Public housing’s seemingly dirty and inferior exterior contrasts with the richness and softness of its residents’ inner worlds. This duality, two sides of a coin, breaks stereotyped perceptions of public housing tenants.
Li’s work creates new understandings of people who have long been misinterpreted by the wider public. By evoking details of everyday life and focusing on the stories of ordinary lives, rather than taking an aestheticized approach, Li invites the viewer into the residents’ realities. His work explores society’s failings and the challenges of fate, documenting individual lives to create a pathway to understanding of the whole community.
Just as Rozee said, there is something both beautiful and terrible about Woolloomooloo.
Yuanyu Li is an emerging curator and producer living and working on Gadigal land. Through her curatorial practices, Li creates unique experiences and explores art’s infinite possibilities and vitalities.
List of works
1. Trolley, 2018, 20 x 25 cm, framed, Edition 2/3 + 1 AP, Archival print on cotton rag paper, $200
2. Faith, 2019, Print on demand, see price-guide below.
3. Salmon Curtain, 2019, 20 x 25 cm, framed, Edition 2/3 + 1 AP, Archival print on cotton rag paper, $200
4. Daniel, 2019, Print on demand, see price-guide below.
5. Pigeons, 2019, 20 x 25 cm, framed, Edition 2/3 + 1 AP, Archival print on cotton rag paper, $200
6. Ike, 2018, 40 x 50 cm, framed, Edition 2/3 + 1 AP, Archival print on cotton rag paper, $400
7. Passion, 2019, Print on demand, see price-guide below.
8. Ronny, 2019, Print on demand, see price-guide below.
9. Con and Chichi, 2019, Print on demand, see price-guide below.
10. Window, 2019, 40 x 50 cm, framed, Edition 1/3 + 1 AP, Archival print on cotton rag paper, $400
11. Flamingo, 2019, 20 x 25 cm, framed, Edition 2/3 + 1 AP, Archival print on cotton rag paper, $200
12. Chair, 2019, 20 x 25 cm, framed, Edition 2/3 + 1 AP, Archival print on cotton rag paper, $200
13. Riley and Sarah, 2019, Print on demand, see price-guide below.
14. Oscar and Tyriesha, 2019, Print on demand, see price-guide below.
15. Love, 2019, Print on demand, see price-guide below.
16. Sabrina, 2020, 72 x 90 cm, unframed, Edition 1/2 + 1 AP, Archival print on cotton rag paper, $800
17. Richie, 2019, 72 x 90 cm, unframed, Edition 1/2 + 1 AP, Archival print on cotton rag paper, $800
18. Andrea and Sons, 2020, 20 x 25 cm, framed, Edition 2/3 + 1 AP, Archival print on cotton rag paper, $200
19. Michelle, 2019, Print on demand, see price-guide below.
20. Ayesha, 2020, 40 x 50 cm, framed, Edition 1/3 + 1 AP, Archival print on cotton rag paper, $400
21. Ayesha, 2020, Print on demand, see price-guide below.
22. Rayson, 2019, 40 x 50 cm, framed, Edition 2/3 + 1 AP, Archival print on cotton rag paper, $400
23. Rayson and Elvis, 2019, Print on demand, see price-guide below.
24. School Yard, 2019, 20 x 25 cm, framed, Edition 2/3 + 1 AP, Archival print on cotton rag paper, $200
25. Jann, 2019, Print on demand, see price-guide below.
26. Jann's Table, 2019, Print on demand, see price-guide below.
27. A Young Black Kangaroo, Artist Book, 96 pages, Edition of 30, $130
Print on demand pricing
Print 72 x 90 cm, unframed, Edition 1/2, unframed, $800
Print 40 x 50 cm, framed, Edition 1/3, framed, $400
Print 20 x 25 cm, framed, 1/3, framed, $200