Brook Andrew: Ethical portraits and ghost-scapes


Brook Andrew is an artist with a flair for provoking uncomfortable emotional states and destabilising conventional categories. While others – notably Richard Bell and Gordon Hookey – compete for the status of the definitive Aboriginal provocateur in the Australian art world, Brook Andrew is incomparable in his mission of up-ending our perceptions of the world, all the more because there is no intended insult or blame, but rather, an eclectic and humanist reading of the world and astonishing virtuosity in his manner of execution. As an anthropologist accustomed to shocking accounts of the transition to modernism, I have been struck by the diffidence and referentialism of much of the critical and theoretical writing on avant-garde art by Indigenous artists. Fortunately, there are a few examples of outstanding, unconventional scholarly and critical writing, notably Catherine Summerhayes’s superb book, The Moving Images of Tracey Moffatt; the self-authored catalogue by the artist herself, Destiny Deacon: Walk & Don’t Look Blak; and Ian McLean and Gordon Bennett’s, The Art of Gordon Bennett.1 See Catherine Summerhayes, The Moving Images of Tracey Moffatt, Edizioni Charta, Milan, 2007; Destiny Deacon, Destiny Deacon: Walk & Don’t Look Blak, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 2004. See also, Ian McLean & Gordon Bennett, The Art of Gordon Bennett, Craftsman House, Sydney, 1996; Ian McLean, Big Country: Works from the Flinders University Art Museum Collection, Flinders University City Gallery, Adelaide, 2003; Ian McLean, ‘The modernity of tradition: Interpreting Western Desert art acrylics’, AAANZ conference paper, Dec. 2002, transcript online at accessed 29 Sept., 2008; Nikos Papastergiadis, ‘The meek Michael Riley’, in Brenda Croft (ed.), Michael Riley; Sights Unseen, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2006, pp. 67–73; and ‘A thousand beautiful things: With Jimmie Durham and Maria-Theresa Alves’, in Blair French, Adam Geczy & Nicholas Tsoutas (eds), Criticism + Engagement + Thought, Artspace, 2004, pp. 42–50. These works inspire a way of looking at Aboriginal avant-garde art that allows for interpretations beyond the shallow racialisation of Aboriginal artists and their work which is evident in much of the literature. The broad historical sweep of Andrew’s work and his references to a range of artists from several periods and continents are important to a rigorous and nuanced understanding of his recent exhibitions.

The National Gallery of Victoria’s strong holding of works by Brook Andrew demands, I believe, something more than the conventional scholarship of Aboriginal art historians and theoreticians. In the following discussion, it is not my intention to tackle this difficult problem with the vigour it deserves. Rather, I draw attention to two striking themes in Andrew’s recent work. First, his use of photographs, an evident and recurring theme; his presentation of intimate, personal, place-based images within a global geo-politics; and the recurring use of light as a metaphor for perception, revelation and mystery. Second, Andrew’s mastery of the mechanical processes of photo-technologies, neon, colour, collage and other media as a means of reclaiming the material and tropes of history, is evidence of his maturity as well as his originality, while at the same time drawing on Russian Constructivists and European modernists, both technically and intellectually.

My approach might be described as a semiotic one, reading events and objects in his career to discern meanings, the cultural flotsam and jetsam and their drift. In this regard, Andrew’s body of work provides a rich source of understanding of the worlds he represents. I start with the point raised by American film scholar E. Ann Kaplan about the potential of the photographic image, and pursue the possible analytic threads; for instance, ‘how visual media dealing with traumatic situations can produce (via spectatorship) either further alienation or empathic understanding of suffering across cultural difference’.2 E. Ann Kaplan, ‘Traumatic contact zones and embodied translators: With reference to select Australian texts’, in E. Ann Kaplan & Ban Wang (eds), Trauma and Cinema: Cross-Cultural Explorations, University of Washington Press, Seattle, 2004, p. 47. She continues:

While what we see in art is heavily mediated by photographic or cinematic processes of selection, editing, framing, inclusion/exclusion, choice of topic, etc., nevertheless there are bodies and voices to watch and listen to from a distance that allows thought, emotion, and close observation and reaction by the spectator. Some have argued that such images represent a kind of history in process, as against the ‘dead’ history of records and documents.3 ibid, p. 46.

This final ‘provocative’ point is one that Kaplan would like to explore further, for as we should well know, history is not ‘dead’. The past is present and, in this regard, her observations are apt, for it is the achievement of Andrew in his enchantment of the ethnographic photographs used in his oeuvre that interests me here. He manipulates tensions involved in personal and social identities – both modern and historical – and yet while he explores the human predicament of colonialism and after modernism, he ties his insights to place. This is his distinctive contribution as a Wiradjuri man, his emotional bond with his mother’s country always shimmering in the background of the global space of the cosmopolitan citizen freed from tradition. If his art practice and worldly experience have released him from the claustrophobic tropes of the subjugation of the natives in the long ago and recent past, he has also been masterful in capturing that pain and humiliation while liberating their ghosts from the vast collection of images produced in studying and displaying them as trophies of the march of progress. This much is obvious to the informed reader of Aboriginal art images. He targets historical events in two series of new works that mark a rapid maturity from his earlier interest in modernism and Pop art. His recent series of works – Gun-metal Grey and The Island – are at once ethical portraits and gothic ghost-scapes rescued from the anthropological archives. They are more philosophical and moody in their reach into the human depths of suffering, cruelty and the grotesque than his earlier modernist works. With his deft reproduction of alarming historical photographs in innovative use of media and styles, his provocation of our readings of history and tropes, inherited visual cultures and ideas, he leaves little room for escape into arch critical stances that purport to position Andrew rather than ourselves in the stream of art history.

Andrew has constructed a variety of ghost-scapes in these works, sensing the people depicted in ethnographic photographs as spiritual presences, coming into being through his magical transformation of their images; they are signified, perceived and remembered in his work. Once, they lived in particular places, were born in a place, dwelled in places, died in a place, and he draws these a priori presumptions about their lives out of the ghostly resonance of their images.

Andrew speaks with a constant tremor of amusement as though a sense of fun were his primary disposition. It is not, as his prodigious body of work demonstrates. He is ‘seriously playful’, as Christine Nicholls observed.4 Christine Nicholls, ‘Brook Andrew: seriously playful’, RealTime, issue 54, Apr.–May, 2003, p. 28, online at He is partly satirist, partly intellectual sadist and partly a pure and innocent observer of the horrors that continue to befall humanity. This was displayed in his 2002 exhibition Showtime and Proselytiser at the Visible Art Foundation in Melbourne, and his 1999 exhibition titled Contention at the Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia in Adelaide. Of the four gigantic digital images in Showtime and Proselytiser, one was a banner of Monica Lewinski wrapped in a pink feather boa, foregrounding an oversized American flag and the word ‘Showtime’, again in sultry pink, which was also shown on the billboard of the Republic Tower in central Melbourne. Like Destiny Deacon, who devised the spelling of the word ‘blak’, Andrew uses the term as ‘part of a symbolic but potent strategy of reclaiming colonialist language to create means of self-definition and expression’.5 Clare Williamson & Hetti Perkins, Blakness. Blak City Culture!, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art / Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Cooperative, South Yarra, 2000, pp. 20–2.

Andrew has employed a wide variety of photomedia during his career, including digital photographs printed on Perspex, foil or canvas. As well, he has produced neon installations, videos, other installation and performance works and collage. In October 2008, at the Aboriginal Art Museum in Utrecht, he presented Theme Park, an installation in the manner of a giant circus-like Wunderkammer.

For more than a decade, Brook Andrew has been keeping a journal and in his notebooks he records the extraordinary things he has witnessed and the images that remain in his memory. He has travelled extensively. The experiences of several places in the world, and his souvenirs and memories of them, inform his art with a cosmopolitan verve.

It is difficult to track the progress of Andrew’s career as an artist because of his enormous output and productivity. Some of his works, such as Sexy and dangerous (fig. 1), are internationally famous, while others are known only to a small audience. In choosing a trajectory through his career to explain his importance in the art world, I offer an account based on my own discovery and experience of various of his works and installations, informed as much by my interest in the material and empirical elements of Andrew’s artistic practice as the theoretical. It is the virtuosity of his work as much as the meanings that command our attention. Increasingly, Andrew has confronted the humanist problems posed by ethnographic photographs of the long dead, the subaltern and the persecuted. His persistent and maturing attempts to grapple with these ethical and philosophical challenges are, it seems to me, his way of answering fundamental questions for an artist: How to express difficult, even overwhelming, emotional and intellectual experiences? How to honour the suffering and gravity of the human experience?

The meaning of black

Brook Andrew’s suite of Cibachrome photographs Kalar midday, 2002–03, first exhibited at Greenaway Art Gallery, Adelaide, 2003, then in other Australian and international galleries, capture his deep fascination with his mother’s country, the great Wiradjuri estate which spreads from the western ridges of the Blue Mountains out across the plains crossed by three rivers. These photographs are captivating in their beauty and gentle disruption of various presumptions about avant-garde Aboriginal art. In one photograph, a beautiful Aboriginal girl, nestled among the branches of a Moreton Bay fig tree, gazes at the night sky, the full moon tinting clouds in the aurora glow of fair weather to come. The moonlight glistens on her black skin and her rapturous, upturned face, sparkles with starlight and draws our attention to the enchantment of the night; the pure balance of deep black space, bright full moon and her taut, expectant, iridescent body outlined in silver. In the second photograph, a powerful, poised Aboriginal male squats in the fork of the giant Moreton Bay fig tree, tensing as if to spring higher up into the tree. His face is turned to the camera and his eyes have the gaze of one caught unawares for a moment by the observer. We sense in the dark image the enigma of calm and yet strained tension that unites the man, the tree and the moon. The calmness incites a shiver, as if the man in the image himself is watching, and his moment of high tensile poise is about to end. In a third image, another beautiful woman is standing among the buttress roots of the fig tree and her upright stance is languid, her arms and shoulders slightly dropped as one does in a state of relaxation. Perhaps she is waiting. Her body shimmers in the moonlight, the curve of her muscles outlined in light against the deep black night. In my catalogue essay written contemporaneously, I suggested that they made me feel as if I had wandered into someone’s dreamworld: ‘Here are potent imaginings of bodies and landscapes, beings both human and animal, of love and desire, and of the unconscious’. The blackness of the images surrounding the intriguing subjects – beautiful naked black bodies, the birds and animals, and the Moreton Bay fig tree – constituted a meaning:

A new space – not a colour and not merely a technique – but a space where we can imagine that dreams are held: the deep black space of unconsciousness into which our dreams flow and vault, leaping across the mind’s eye, never still and never real; the deep black space where peace and tranquillity live.6 Marcia Langton, ‘The space of dreams’, Greenaway Art Gallery, Adelaide, 2003.

I was struck by the power of the images to convey an idea of a world beyond our human senses in which an ecology of night, moonlight and fig tree host the most perfect beings.

In Ignoratia, another work in this suite, the image of two kookaburras, or in fact the mirrored image of a kookaburra showing it in two likenesses, backs turned against each other, repeats the theme of strange beings in the deep black space of dreams. The kookaburra is a museum object, a once-living bird, captured for the institution to ensure a complete display of bird species, and stuffed by a taxidermist. Andrew has re-invented the display bird, hiding its approved museum status as a representative of its species, and endowing it with a flicker of existential drama in the mirror-image arrangement. The two birds convey the dilemma of self and the other: is it possible for the self to know the other? Is the other always only a reflection of the self? In Andrew’s theatre of dreams, they are fated to face away from each other, silent and still.

In Tensio (currawongs and snake) (fig. 2), also part of the same suite, the image of two currawongs, each looking at a coiled snake, continues the theme of the mirror image, of reflection and imitation. Again, the taxidermist’s objects have been removed from a museum and staged in Andrew’s black space. In Aboriginal mythology the crow is often depicted as an antisocial creature that never shares the company of other birds. Therefore it is black, completely black, whereas other birds have colour and variety. When colour spread throughout the bird world, black birds ignored their fellow birds and missed out, remaining black, like the inchoate world from which life sprang.

Narcissus, similarly, presents a mirror image, here, of a man of Dionysian beauty. The resonance of the Greek and Roman admiration for the male body in Classical times may be misleading, for the purity of the form overcomes the sense of the statuesque and mimetic insistently conveyed in the entire suite. The light falling on the body, which then takes shape in its own capacity to reflect this light, seems to recall the act of vision itself, and the perception of phenomena through the refraction of light and the shadows of darkness.

These images are redolent with the idea of well-known Aboriginal traditions remembered in stories, ceremonies and images that hold that special places are the work of ancestral beings, part-human and part non-human, but authors and creators of the world we live in and even our own human propensities.

We almost expect that the beautiful people in the fig tree in the Kalar midday suite could create a mountain or a river, or even, as sometimes happens with these originary beings, that they might be transformed into the everlasting physical features of the landscape, sleeping forever in a hill, or a rock, or in the moon. Gaston Bachelard writes, ‘All great, simple images reveal a psychic state’.7 Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, Maria Jolas (trans.), Beacon Press, Boston, 1994, p. 72. His study of ‘intimate immensity’ neatly describes the realm of daydream, dream and imagination that Andrew playfully brings to bear in his meditation on the power of Aboriginal mythology to transform human characteristics into the gigantic effects of the supernatural ancestors who created the mountains, the stars, and the rivers. Bachelard continues:

One might say that immensity is a philosophical category of daydream. Daydream undoubtedly feeds on all kinds of sights, but through a sort of natural inclination, it contemplates grandeur. And this contemplation produces an attitude that is so special, an inner state that is so unlike any other, that the daydream transports the dreamer outside the immediate world to a world that bears the mark of infinity.

In analysing images of immensity, we should realize within ourselves the pure being of pure imagination. It then becomes clear that works of art are the by-products of this existentialism of the imagining being. In this direction of daydream of immensity, the real product is consciousness of enlargement. We feel that we have been promoted to the dignity of the admiring being.8 ibid., pp. 183–4.

When we spoke on the phone in early October 2003, Brook Andrew told me he wanted to ‘create works that seduce people’. He said he wanted ‘to remove the idea of the ugly race’, ‘to make a long black landscape, a singularly beautiful, fantastical perfect landscape’, ‘to make a romance.’ Eventually, he used the terms that might appeal to an academic: ‘representations of the Aboriginal body in landscape stripped of history and violence’. In my own mind, at least, he surpassed his goal.

YOU’VEALWAYSWANTEDTOBEBLACK

In 2006 Andrew used a segment of archival film footage that was given to him in a looped sequence in the installation YOU’VEALWAYSWANTEDTOBEBLACK presented by the National Gallery of Victoria in association with the Melbourne International Arts Festival. The entry to the installation featured a wall emblazoned with black and white Wiradjuri geometric designs derived from customary designs of his people interrupted with kitsch plaster models of cockatoos. A segment of a carved tree, borrowed from the Museum of Victoria, was also displayed near the entrance. A soundscape of echoing black cockatoo calls filled the air – a recording Andrew taped at the Otway Ranges, Victoria. The film was projected onto a boxing ring located in the section of the exhibition space behind the wall. On a wall in the same room, was a bakelite Aboriginal radio head, its eyes glowing red. The film, labelled Balfour and probably dating from the 1930s or 1940s, depicts men from the Museum of Victoria using a giant chainsaw to remove trees with dendroglyphs, as the swirling carvings made by ancestral people on the trunks of trees are termed. A truck with the museum’s title on its door appears in several scenes and, later, it is seen leaving the area loaded with tree trunks. The landscape in which these shocking actions occurred may be western New South Wales, judging from the trees and soil types in the images. We would not have had the opportunity to understand the precise fate of the carved trees in museum collections without seeing this film. The showing of this film has rescued a small part of history; now we know how the museum acquired the carved trees. The cultural crime itself was revealed, and Andrew’s installation serves as retribution. I saw the installation with Andrew and his mother and father. The mood was a heady mix of barely suppressed parental pride in Andrew’s achievement and dignity held against the pain and sadness provoked by the scenes in the film.

To see the film is to see history happening, but it also has another special quality. This film of the removal of the carved trees from their homeland, exhibited in the installation with its realist historical resonance, is an ethnographic artefact of the same order as Sexy and dangerous, which takes an ethnographic photograph of an unknown Aboriginal subject and, by a deft process of transformation – its gigantism, sepia tone and Chinese script, makes us see the image of this man not as a curiosity but as a reading of his condition. Where once the carved trees populated the plains with their elegant inscriptions, so, too, did the people in the ethnographic photographs reside in places somewhere on this continent. Like the young man in Sexy and dangerous, they were not ‘savages’ or ‘primitives’, but people who lived extraordinary lives with dignity, rank and honour for their achievements. The body scarification and septum decorations were badges of rank that denoted stages of knowledge and status in their social worlds. In the nineteenth century and early twentieth century, when phrenology and racial classification were powerful ideas that attracted the most famous scientists in the world to their rank, photographs such as this one served to denote none of these social and human conditions, but served only mad racial fantasies about racial ‘types’ and the theories concerning the hierarchy of races.

Throughout almost a decade of research in archives, museums and collecting institutions, Andrew discovered the ‘disappeared’ – the many thousands of unnamed Aboriginal people in photographs and films studied for scientific purposes – and he has revealed something of their history; if not personal, then at least contextual and, above all, respectful and memorial.

In YOU’VEALWAYSWANTEDTOBEBLACK, the NGV installation concerning the dendroglyphs, and other works that play with the ethnographic imagery of Aboriginal people produced during the dark age of social-Darwinism, Andrew challenges the dehumanisation of Aboriginal people that these colonial representational practices achieved for an anxious white settler audience. In his letter to me about his speech ‘The ice rink in a museum’ that he made for the launch of an issue of the Australia and New Zealand Journal of Art he wrote:

Creating order from my own understanding of the chaos of my living years as an artist in a colonised country seems not without understanding that we’re all in it together. But the contrast of living stresses today a mass conflict in ways in which I have not a clue how to work through it apart from cleaning up the mess of my own thoughts. So, if you can make sense of this, well we’re all in it together.9 Brook Andrew to Marcia Langton, email correspondence, 26 Aug. 2006.

The ‘mess’ he refers to is the ugly historical legacy, which he ‘re-divines’ (to use his word), or re-enchants, with humanity and spirit. I asked him about his discovery of ethnographic photographs and how they have affected his work, he responded:

I came across them in 1995, and I was astounded by [them]. And I still am – that there were in fact thousands of these ethnographic photographs … I can go to the Royal Anthropological Institute [in London], and I’ll just sit there and [think], ‘I can’t believe this’. It’s like a kind of a fantasy film where we’re living in this reality, but then there was all this other history that happened, and we don’t even know about it; or we can’t even say who these people are. We can’t even say what their names are. I find it a complete and utter mystery, because they’re from a time and a place that I myself, and my immediate family don’t have any recollection of. We don’t have any – I mean there are photos taken of our ancestors from that area, and also other areas … I think that those photos are a complete mystery, and especially that they were – you know, a hundred years ago [there were] a lot of them, and I find the fact that we don’t have access – a lot of Australians don’t have access to that kind of history – it’s … like disappeared history, and that’s why I’m so interested in ideas and notions of the disappeared, politically or socially, or of other peoples around the world. Like in Argentina or in the killing fields in Cambodia. The powerful rows of portraits in sites like Auschwitz are a show of survival and truth. This is missing in our country, and I’ve always believed that. Children don’t visit the sites of the Aboriginal Welfare Board’s Cootamundra Girls Home, established in 1911, or Kinchela Boys Home where Aboriginal children were trained for slave labour … I think about ethnographic images of Aboriginal people differently than what has generally been written or spoken about, especially in regards to the Colonial Gaze, you know?10 Brook Andrew, interview with Marcia Langton, 30 Jan. 2007.

It is this searing quality of his perspective on these historical legacies that makes his work so edgy and disturbing. In his ‘Ice rink’ letter, he asked: ‘And when does Lindt [the colonial photographer of Aboriginal subjects in his studio settings] finally reveal that the romance of his photography was nothing more than his own romance, or is that our job?’11 Andrew, email.

I agree with Andrew about another key point in this messy area of racial stereotyping and over-determined ‘native’ politics: the denial of cosmopolitanism in Aboriginal art. My questions to him about this led him to explain his disappointment with the ‘rather shallow readings of the work of Aboriginal artists’. It is almost pointless to object to this racialist categorisation of Aboriginal art, which functions without regard to the many influences – international and historical – in the works of Aboriginal artists. Andrew finds the racial label disturbing because it cannot access his way of thinking as an artist. But, that is surely the point. Racism belittles the human being. And this, I think, is what drives Andrew’s humanist approach to the ethnographic and historical images that he has uncovered in museums and institutions in Britain and Europe.

This funny little coloured thing

In talking about his childhood, Andrew is careful to point out that he grew up in a ‘very suburban environment.’

I had connections to the very intimate things of my landscape and family like a nest of an endangered red-crested black cockatoo … in a big tree behind my family home … that was really important to me till it was cut down. And … very kitsch objects around the house like oversized Aboriginal head stirring spoons … big family gatherings with kids sleeping everywhere and lots of gambling on anything – as mum explains it, a very salt and pepper family. That was my life … visiting relatives at Murraweena, or wherever. But we’d generally congregate at my mother’s parents’ house.12 Andrew, interview.

When he was about 14 or 15, at Cambridge Park High School in Western Sydney, his biology teacher, who Andrew remembers wearing a Hawaiian T-shirt, stubby shorts and long socks, told the class that ‘all Aboriginal people had swirls on their thumbs and protruding jaws, and only a couple were left in the Central Desert’. Andrew admits, ‘I was catapulted into a different world – “God, I’m not really living in the world that I think I’m living in”. I was … very confused’. I asked Andrew if he remembered the text. He responded:

No, I think he just got up out the front of the class and spoke as if he were telling a fairy tale. Everyone was mesmerised, except us Kooris. It was horrifying … we had to do these little assignments. And so I went to the post office and got a little package on Aborigines – the little drawings with canoes and people fishing … you cut them out and create stories. And that was my assignment – one of my first assignments. And it was a completely … bizarre experience for me as a child because … you know, my mum was very strong about our Aboriginal culture. But that was my first snippet, I suppose, of traditional life … this funny little coloured thing… And that’s why, I suppose as I’m older now, that I talk about these things – about looking at these photos and also looking about who owns who and who owns what we see.13 Andrew, interview.

The word ‘viable’ came to Andrew when he thought about our discussions: how to make viable representations of our predicament, this terrible condition of being the echo of the ethnographic subjects in colonial photography, and re-enchant images with personhood.

By ‘viable’ I think Andrew means ‘persuasive’, ‘convincing’, and – even more – ‘possible’. The possibility of the original, the possibility of the real? He knows that ‘the real’ is unattainable, but equally, the search for it is intriguing. Each of his encounters with an ethnographic image or object, as I have observed while he is working in his studio, involves an investigation of the hints of what might have preceded the ethnographic image or object, its provenance and the events surrounding its manufacture, and its mimesis in copies and reproductions. He suggests to us alternative ways of looking at these objects and of interpreting their pasts.

Gun-metal Grey

In a series of six works entitled Gun-metal Grey first shown in Come into the light, his 2007 solo exhibition in Melbourne, Brook Andrew reproduced disturbing ethnographic and historical photographs in a spectacular screenprinting process, using silver foil on Belgian linen, accompanied by neon lights that flicker across the images, bringing the ghostly subjects to life, as shown in Ngalan (fig. 3). These works assault the intellect and senses with gigantism, shadows, neon, the brilliance of metallic materials, and the inescapable witnessing of sexual voyeurism and brutal, tragic and violent histories. Another work, not part of the Gun-metal Grey series, Come into the light (fig. 5) depicts a man smiling with orgasmic pleasure while he is having sex with a woman, while in another work, H142: First female aboriginal seen and captured. Camp XL (fig. 4), an armed frontiersman holds the hand of a naked little girl. A woman’s head seems to be thrust backwards at an awkward angle as if there has been perhaps an act of assault or a mishap during the photographic session. A man stares with the eyes of a survivor from the recesses of the image.

Barely visible because of the poor quality of the original photographs, these images demand that we tilt our heads and walk around the gallery to discern their secrets and elicit meanings. While some may think that effect might be the result of the high saturation of grey colour digitally applied to images of archival photo-portraits, this is not the case. The murkiness of the original photographs was part of the artist’s challenge; he was drawn by this quality and the mystery and sadness that it invoked in him. The title, Gun-metal Grey, perhaps refers to this murkiness of the images, while at the same time, to the violence of the frontier and the armed vigilantes that rode out to secure land with scant regard for Aboriginal life.

The Gun-metal Grey works develop these ideas with none of the studied irony and energy of his Peace, The Man & Hope, 2005, from his Hope & Peace series of screenprints. The gravitas of the works is striking. The neon lights in red, blue and white are not playful but political; we are looking at what was there at different moments on the frontier when the Empire sought to conquer Terra Australis, the Great South Land – several distinctive people, caught in several moments: fornicating, afraid, looking at the camera, trees in the background, the earth. Here, death and the past are embodied in the artist’s grasp of his responsibility to converse with the subjects as a presence not an absence. Here, art is philosophy, drawing us into the problem of what we ‘see’, and the resonance of the struggle to unravel self from the other in the history of philosophy is resolved visually. The remarks of Levinas on this mystery are apt:

The relationship with the other is not an idyllic and harmonious relationship of communion, or a sympathy through which we put ourselves in the other’s place; we recognize the other as resembling us, but exterior to us; the relationship with the other is a relationship with Mystery. The other’s entire being is constituted by its exteriority, or rather its alterity, for exteriority is a property of space and leads the subject back to itself through light.14 Emmanuel Levinas, ‘Time and the other’, in Sean Hand (ed.), The Levinas Reader, Blackwell, Oxford, 1989, p. 43.

In these works, even more disquieting than the effect of Sexy and dangerous and The boxing ring, the glitzy, glamorous and colourful elements of the Hope & Peace series are absent.

While glamorous, the blak postcolonial man in Peace, The Man & Hope is a compromised and difficult study that bears some explanation here. This suite of works celebrates the postcolonial Aboriginal man as a hero of the resistance. However, all is not what it seems. The use of dollar signs and guns in these screenprint collages from the Hope & Peace series suggest the insinuation of excessive consumerism into the lives of alienated youth, despised racial groups and the victims of globalisation. Andrew hinted at the heavy signification of bling in blak ghettoes everywhere, with Swarovski crystals, diamond dust and graphite. The violent and vain male culture of the gangs and rap music industry of black American life, the bling-bling as male body adornment and other garish items of the cult of conspicuous consumerism of the street life, are the predominant exports to the others of globalisation, resulting in entrapment in a culture of black kitsch that poorly serves the desire for self-esteem of young black men.

The ineffectual construction of heroic figures in the rap world that this culture represents is emphasised by the hero figure in three works – Peace, The Man & Hope, The Man and Test. The first example (fig. 6) pivots on a larger-than-life image of boxer Anthony Mundine in a disarticulated group of screenprinted pieces reassembled to show the hyped and cut physique of Mundine aglow with the colours of peace, streaked and refracted across the large cut-outs. And hero he is, especially in these representations that draw on the Warhol-esque tradition of popular celebrity and idolatry mixed with the irony and melancholy of the haunted, machine-made image. In Test Andrew draws our attention to the physical perfection of Mundine’s body to remind us of the congruence of athleticism and pride in his struggle for success. It is impossible to ignore the masculinity of the images. Anthony Mundine is a consummate athlete and a hero among Aboriginal people, even while his stature is ensnared in this tricky dilemma.

My search for a simple answer to questions about Andrew’s artistic methodology in producing the images in the Come into the light exhibition could not avoid the artist’s unique approach to the problem of the dead – the metaphysical problem of our relationship with the dead in the image. His discovery of thousands of ethnographic photographs of Aboriginal people, long deceased, led him to compare their fate to the victims of the military junta of the South American dictatorships established in the twentieth century. More than three thousand people died or disappeared during the Pinochet regime, which lasted from 1973 to 1990. The abduction, torture and assassination of many more thousands in Argentina is another chapter in these ‘dirty wars’. The Disappeared is the name given to those who were abducted and murdered under military regimes in Argentina and Chile in the 1970s and 1980s. For Interviews, 2006, Andrew spoke with a number of people including Rosa, vice-president of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo (Mothers of the Disappeared), a women’s human rights movement that started in Buenos Aires in April 1977 when four mothers demonstrated to draw attention to the plight of their children under the military dictatorship of the time. They continued for three decades to campaign for those who were taken from them. Their search continues.

It is difficult for Australians to consider the fate of thousands of Aboriginal people as akin to that of the Disappeared. The reduction of Aboriginal history to caricatures and slogans that stand in for partial and reductionist understandings of the experience of the stolen generations, for instance, leaves most of us with few tools for the cosmopolitan comparisons that Andrew makes. His humanist motives of resurrecting the dead and enlivening them with dignity and grace involved raiding the bricolage of the European museums and institutions. By screenprinting the images on silver foil and casting the glow of neon over the images, he releases the nameless dead from the ghostly realms of the photographic archives into a hyper-real state where our relationship with them is palpable.

The inescapable meaning of the images is the enigma of death and the shadow it casts across time, leaving us to stare into its depths, awed by its inscrutability and power, asking questions. Mysterious death is knowable and unknowable, and these images share that ambiguity in several ways. First, the subjects are recognisably characters from the dark past of frontier anthropology and history in Australia. We immediately recognise the Aboriginal subject of physical anthropology in these photographs, even if they seem to be of the type that anthropologists hid away in the archives of the Royal Anthropological Institute rather than published in their scholarly tomes. Second, they place us in the audience in a relationship with the past. But the trickery of photography destabilises that relationship in the way that Roland Barthes describes in his profoundly important book Camera Lucida:

The Photograph does not necessarily say what is no longer, but only and for certain what has been. This distinction is decisive. In front of a photograph, our consciousness does not necessarily take the nostalgic path of memory (how many photographs are outside of individual time), but for every photograph existing in the world, the path of certainty: the Photograph’s essence is to ratify what it represents. One day I received from a photographer a picture of myself which I could not remember being taken, for all my efforts; I inspected the tie, the sweater, to discover in what circumstances I had worn them; to no avail. And yet, because it was a photograph I could not deny that I had been there (even if I did not know where). This distortion between certainty and oblivion gave me a kind of vertigo, something of a ‘detective’ anguish (the theme of Blow-Up was not far off); I went to the photographer’s show as to a police investigation, to learn at last what I no longer knew about myself.15 Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, Hill & Wang, New York, 1981, p. 85.

For Barthes, the experience drew his attention to how he was the reference for each photograph he looked at, and the questions these experiences raised were both political and metaphysical. For instance, he asked, ‘Why am I alive here and now?’16 ibid. p. 84. Barthes was astonished at the possibilities inherent in photography: in one case, he felt that he was looking into the eyes that had looked at Emperor Napoleon.

The philosophical, epistemological if you like, thrust of Andrew’s postcolonial gaze is an act of demystification. If there is an injustice, a rank act of unethical representation, as there is undeniably in the hoards of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century photographs of Aboriginal people in collecting institutions, the challenge the artist poses is: how to restitute the people represented, to give them back their personhood taken away, not just by the curiosity that posited them as subjects of a scientific inquiry, but by the absence of their names in the records? Can they exist as persons rather than representations of an idea? Andrew supposes that they can. Rather than cutting their images from the original, as he did in his school assignment with the Australia Post Aboriginal cut-out sheets, he addresses the original subjects, giving them a hyper-real life in his own work. This is an act of daring with ethical implications that draw us into what appears to be a simple portrait, but which demystifies the original by showing us the real: our selves in relationship with their presence.

The Island

Even more disquieting and somehow more offensive are his works entitled The Island IV and The Island V (figs 7 & 8), which are extremely large. They glisten; the red, blue, gold and silver foil is shocking. The intrigue of the images lies in their simultaneous romanticism and racism, a not-so-unusual outcome of the curiosity of a nineteenth-century gentleman scholar. In this case, the commissioned sketches of William Blandowski,17 On Blandowski’s life in Australia, see Paul Humphries, ‘Blandowski misses out: Ichthyological etiquette in nineteenth-century Australia’, Endeavour, vol. 27, no. 4, Dec. 2003: ‘Wilhelm Blandowski, a Prussian émigré, arrived in Australia in 1849 with hopes of exploring and documenting the natural history of this still relatively scientifically naïve colony. After several years travelling, surveying and mining gold, he became the first government zoologist at the infant National Museum of Victoria and was a key player in the burgeoning scientific establishment. Chosen to lead a collecting expedition to the junction of the Murray and Darling Rivers in 1856, Blandowski and his faithful companion Gerard Krefft brought back a wealth of new material, including many species of undescribed freshwater fishes. Unfortunately, Blandowski’s attempts to “honour” members of the Philosophical Institute of Victoria backfired and a scandal ensued. A disillusioned Blandowski left Australia just ten years after his arrival.’ a Prussian scientist, have offered an opportunity for Brook Andrew, one hundred and fifty-one years after they were first drawn on an expedition from Melbourne to the Murray River, to exert his magic on these colonial aides-memoires with startling effect. The crudeness of the representation of Aboriginal men dancing in a ceremony in the blue version of The Island IV (fig. 7) is magnified by the enormity of the image. The horror of the image of dogs attacking a kangaroo, about to tear it to pieces, in the red version of The Island V (fig. 8), is visceral in its impact.

I see you. You see me

Brook Andrew intends, I believe, that in each of his works of art there is a specific personal story grounded in an historical and social past. The transformative effect of his artistic vision is distinctly Aboriginal in its manoeuvre against death and with the sacredness of life. There are secrets not revealed and yet not hidden for those who understand the language of this vision.18 I am grateful to Dr John von Sturmer for this insight. Also, these works are distinctly Aboriginal in the spatial sense: his subjects are localised and, at the same time, diverse. The result is an aesthetic reading of the world that is thrilling and, sometimes, chilling in its astuteness.

Despite this, Brook Andrew refuses to be categorised as an Aboriginal artist, and for this we can be grateful: his works are the result of his deep humanism and refusal to be restrained by boundaries. In this respect, his Wiradjuri poetry: ‘NGAJUU NGAAY NGINDUUGIRR. NGINDUUGIRR NGAAY NGAJUU’ (I see you. You see me), takes on a world of meaning that mixes hope with the sadness that comes with knowing, perhaps too much, about the human condition.

Marcia Langton,Professor of of Australian Indigenous Studies, University of Melbourne (in 2008)

Notes

I am grateful to two anonymous readers for providing thoughtful responses and suggestions for improving an earlier draft of this essay.

 

1     See Catherine Summerhayes, The Moving Images of Tracey Moffatt, Edizioni Charta, Milan, 2007; Destiny Deacon, Destiny Deacon: Walk & Don’t Look Blak, Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 2004. See also, Ian McLean & Gordon Bennett, The Art of Gordon Bennett, Craftsman House, Sydney, 1996; Ian McLean, Big Country: Works from the Flinders University Art Museum Collection, Flinders University City Gallery, Adelaide, 2003; Ian McLean, ‘The modernity of tradition: Interpreting Western Desert art acrylics’, AAANZ conference paper, Dec. 2002, transcript online at <http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/__data/page/2340/ian_mclean.pdf> accessed 29 Sept., 2008; Nikos Papastergiadis, ‘The meek Michael Riley’, in Brenda Croft (ed.), Michael Riley; Sights Unseen, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2006, pp. 67–73; and ‘A thousand beautiful things: With Jimmie Durham and Maria-Theresa Alves’, in Blair French, Adam Geczy & Nicholas Tsoutas (eds), Criticism + Engagement + Thought, Artspace, 2004, pp. 42–50.

2     E. Ann Kaplan, ‘Traumatic contact zones and embodied translators: With reference to select Australian texts’, in E. Ann Kaplan & Ban Wang (eds), Trauma and Cinema: Cross-Cultural Explorations, University of Washington Press, Seattle, 2004, p. 47.

3     ibid, p. 46.

4     Christine Nicholls, ‘Brook Andrew: seriously playful’, RealTime, issue 54, Apr.–May, 2003, p. 28, online at <http://www.realtimearts.net/rt54/nicholls.html>

5     Clare Williamson & Hetti Perkins, Blakness. Blak City Culture!, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art / Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Cooperative, South Yarra, 2000, pp. 20–2.

6     Marcia Langton, ‘The space of dreams’, Greenaway Art Gallery, Adelaide, 2003.

7     Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, Maria Jolas (trans.), Beacon Press, Boston, 1994, p. 72.

8     ibid., pp. 183–4.

9     Brook Andrew to Marcia Langton, email correspondence, 26 Aug. 2006.

10     Brook Andrew, interview with Marcia Langton, 30 Jan. 2007.

11     Andrew, email.

12     Andrew, interview.

13     Andrew, interview.

14     Emmanuel Levinas, ‘Time and the other’, in Sean Hand (ed.), The Levinas Reader,

Blackwell, Oxford, 1989, p. 43.

15     Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, Hill & Wang, New York, 1981, p. 85.

16     ibid. p. 84.

17     On Blandowski’s life in Australia, see Paul Humphries, ‘Blandowski misses out: Ichthyological etiquette in nineteenth-century Australia’, Endeavour, vol. 27, no. 4, Dec. 2003: ‘Wilhelm Blandowski, a Prussian émigré, arrived in Australia in 1849 with hopes of exploring and documenting the natural history of this still relatively scientifically naïve colony. After several years travelling, surveying and mining gold, he became the first government zoologist at the infant National Museum of Victoria and was a key player in the burgeoning scientific establishment. Chosen to lead a collecting expedition to the junction of the Murray and Darling Rivers in 1856, Blandowski and his faithful companion Gerard Krefft brought back a wealth of new material, including many species of undescribed freshwater fishes. Unfortunately, Blandowski’s attempts to “honour” members of the Philosophical Institute of Victoria backfired and a scandal ensued. A disillusioned Blandowski left Australia just ten years after his arrival.’

18     I am grateful to Dr John von Sturmer for this insight.