Brook Andrew

Australian born 1970
S & D II
1997, printed 2006
computer-generated colour transparency on transparent synthetic polymer resin
Purchased, Victorian Foundation for Living Australian Artists 2007.6

Sexy and Dangerous II, 1997, features the striking image of a young Aboriginal man – we now know he was from the Armidale region in New South Wales. The image comes from a historical photograph made in the late nineteenth century under the colonial gaze. When I came to create this artwork in the mid 1990s there was little or no provenance research or cultural protocols for engaging with such ethnographic photographs. Through the last ten to fifteen years we have learnt the correct way to work with these important images and how they relate to our communities.

I came across the original portrait when I was about twenty-five years old at the Mitchell Library in Sydney. I was curious about colonial imagery, that these collections existed, and what they represent today, given the invisibility of our ancestors. This portrait is one of hundreds of ethnographic photographs that Kerry & Co. made of Aboriginal people in New South Wales in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: people from Wiradjuri, Kamilaroi, Yuin, Darug and other Aboriginal nations. With further research a few years later at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies I found out that this man was known to Kerry as Cunningham; however, to my knowledge we cannot confirm his name or kinship. Cunningham may be the name of the station owner where he worked. When I came to make this work twenty-five years ago, such photographs weren’t digitised or readily accessible, nor had they been studied by many historians or actively connected with descendants.

At the time of making this work, I wanted visibility for this young man and a celebration of our ancestors’ identities, to see how we, as First Nations peoples, are connected to these important photographs and to empower our sovereignty. I was thinking about what’s lost to dominant narratives and histories, who is disappeared in what we remember in Australia, and indeed the world. I wanted to insert back into public memory, images that were deliberately hidden or neglected. The title of the artwork “Sexy and Dangerous” is a serious attempt in 1996 to tackle the derogatory racist terms towards Indigenous peoples. So often these terms have an underbelly of primitivism, stereotyping who we are and what our ancestors were – these ethnographic photographs were presented like that, used to illustrate a type.

Through digital methods I created a new image that is not a straight photograph. The Mandarin calligraphy, roughly translated as “Sexy and Dangerous”, is used as a label. I was seeking to reposition these racist ideas with another language while also reflecting on the protests and massacre of Chinese citizens in 1989 at Tiananmen Square.

I wanted to make a connection between a capitalist aesthetic, with the transparent photo mounted on acrylic, and the debris of colonialism – which is arguably one and the same. It’s not a sexual image for me; although he is handsome, I did not want to turn him into a romanticised person, but one with power and dignity. I absolutely wanted to make him visible and to tear down the doctrine of primitivism and the violence of the colonial gaze that still operates today.’

– Brook Andrew, 2022