Destiny Deacon, ‘superstar’ Indigenous artist and activist, dies aged 67

<span>Destiny Deacon (right) with Janina Harding at White Bay Power Station during the 2024 Biennale of Sydney. The acclaimed artist has died aged 67.</span><span>Photograph: Katje Ford</span>
Destiny Deacon (right) with Janina Harding at White Bay Power Station during the 2024 Biennale of Sydney. The acclaimed artist has died aged 67.Photograph: Katje Ford

Destiny Deacon, the trailblazing First Nations artist and activist known for her works using “Koori Kitsch” to subvert colonial interpretations of Indigenous culture, has died aged 67.

Deacon’s death was announced on Friday by Sydney’s Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, which has represented the artist for more than two decades.

The gallery described Deacon, who was a descendent of the Kuku (Cape York) and Erub/Mer (Torres Strait) peoples, as a pioneering artist and cherished friend.

Related: Destiny Deacon on humour in art, racism, 'Koori kitsch' and why dolls are better than people

“Destiny’s work, known for its witty and incisive exploration of Indigenous identity, political activism, and cultural resilience, has left an indelible mark on the Australian art landscape and beyond,” the statement said.

“We have no doubt that Destiny’s legacy will continue to inspire and resonate with future generations, serving as a potent impetus for social change and collective healing.”

Deacon did not pursue a career as a professional artist until the 1990s, using the kitsch she had collected over the years.

Collecting, assembling and photographing ephemera – from tourist tack such as fake boomerangs to the outright racist “mammy” and golly dolls – was the artist’s way of conveying how white Australia had failed to come to terms with the country’s Indigenous peoples.

Her work has been the subject of two major retrospectives, Walk & don’t look blak at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art in 2004, and an exhibition simply titled Destiny at the National Gallery of Victoria in 2020.

She was awarded the Centenary medal and an honorary fellowship from the Royal Photographic Society in 2022.

Deacon’s last interview with Guardian Australia was in 2020, leading up to the opening of her NGV retrospective, delayed due to Covid-19, which featured the largest collection ever of her work.

“That’s [the way] white Australia saw us: the flora, the fauna, and the objects,” she said, speaking of her work with kitschy objects. “And I just thought, well, [those objects] have just as much to say.”

In response to her critics who claim her work was not art, she said: “The joke’s on them, I’m blue chip, it sells in the auctions … but I don’t get any money from it.”

Deacon is credited with pioneering the use of the word Blak in Australia, in her triptych Blak lik mi (1991-2003). It was a way of self-determining her identity: redefining the spelling and meaning of Black by removing the “c”, which she said was tied to hearing the C-word shouted at Black people by white racists.

“I just wanted to take the ‘c’ out of ‘Black’,” Deacon told SBS’s NITV in 2020.

Deacon studied at the University of Melbourne and became a history teacher. Her political activism led her to a job in Canberra with Aboriginal activist Charles Perkins. She later became a tutor and lecturer in Australian writing and culture, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural production at Melbourne University.

Art curator and writer Hetti Perkins, who has known Deacon since she joined her father’s organisation in the 1980s, said the artist had a huge impact on Australian art.

Works like the 1993 photographic Dreaming in Urban Areas, now housed in the National Gallery of Australia, opened Australian eyes to the “incredible diversity and talent and the cultural expressions of [Indigenous artists] living in urbanised centres,” Perkins said.

“I think her legacy we’ll fully come to realise only now that she’s passed away, because she, like her art, was larger than life,” Perkins said.

“I was fortunate to work with her on many occasions, she was very very smart, and I didn’t mind being on the pointy end of her wit, it was always a privilege. Her incisive wit and humour will be so greatly missed.”

Related: Bangarra’s Stephen Page and artist Destiny Deacon win $50,000 lifetime achievement awards

Indigenous academic Prof Marcia Langton told the ABC on Friday that Deacon was a giant of contemporary art.

“She was a superstar in the art scene in Australia,” Langton said.

“Her work will remain the standard for political art, for witty, cut-through, black, urban art. Her work was feminist and intersectional, free of heteronormative restrictions.”

All images and naming protocols used in this article have been approved by family.