Civilised #11, Michael Cook, 2012
Civilised #11, Michael Cook, 2012

Forgotten empire

The almost complete absence of imperialism and particularly of colonialism from British public discourse has always struck me as problematic in itself and a sign of immaturity. Even a keen follower of British politics, media and the arts would only rarely be reminded of this country’s global power between 1550 and 1950, and still less of the consequences of that power for countless millions of lives. My sons studied the Second World War three times during their English school careers, and the British Empire not once.There is some reflection on this history in the arts, but even there it feels conditional rather than accepted, a badge of liberal sentiment, kept within well-patrolled borders. Powerful voices, such as those of Yinka Shonibare and Steve McQueen, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Ben Okri, are accommodated but neither the cultural establishment nor most white artists show much interest either in the British Empire or its consequences.

From the other side of the world

One of the most interesting aspects of visiting Australia is to be reminded how differently all this looks from, literally, the other side. Australia is a nation born of empire and colonialism. Its present is shaped, in every aspect, by the actions of the British state since James Cook claimed the continent for Great Britain in 1770. Despite independence in 1931, the British Monarch is still the Australian Head of State, a position underlined by the current royal visit. Here, colonisers and colonised have lived alongside one another for more than two centuries, very largely to the detriment of the latter, and neither imperial history not its legacy can be as easily ignored as in Britain. The long road to a more equitable society, whose many way-points have included changes to the Australian Constitution in 1967, the Mabo case which invalidated the concept of terra nullius in 1992 and the Federal Government Apology to the Stolen Generations in 2008, continues to be central to public discourse. The symbolic opening of events and meetings with a formal acknowledgement of the traditional owners of the land on which they are taking place can be both moving and an important resistance to forgetfulness.

George Rrurrambu from Warumpi Band (R) and Marcus McDonald (L), Papunya, 2003 (© Steven Siewert)
George Rrurrambu from Warumpi Band (R) and Marcus McDonald (L), Papunya, 2003 (© Steven Siewert)

This remembering transforms Australia’s politics, law, education and social policy: it also defines its cultural life, which has had to find ways of including the extraordinary, rich and complex cultures of Aboriginal peoples, whose concepts of the artist, of personal expression and of intellectual property—to say nothing of aesthetics—are all so different from those of Europeans. And so, to read Ben Genocchio on the market for Aboriginal art, or Paul Kelly on country music and Aboriginal communities, is to encounter territories with few familiar landmarks and where things often mean something quite different to what you expect them to mean; that might be especially fascinating to a European visitor like me.

A different parliament, with different dreams

These thoughts were prompted by seeing Michael Cook’s latest work, Majority Rule, at Andrew Baker’s gallery in Brisbane a few days ago. In seven large photographic prints, the artist presents an image of what Australia might look like if Aboriginal people formed 96% of the population, not 4%. At first sight, the photographs show key sites of national identity—the old federal parliament, the supreme court, the war memorial—occupied by crowds. But look closer and you see that there is only one person, a distinctive, even distinguished figure, an Aboriginal man dressed in smart, slightly old-fashioned European clothes, whose image is reproduced in subtly different poses and expressions across the space. The result is haunting, dreamlike. In the old Federal Parliament chamber, he speaks from the seat occupied by Neville Bonner, the first indigenous Australian Senator, pointing at himself, in front of an audience of himself. It is an unsettling, ambiguous image, much more memorable for its non-realism.

Majority Rule (Parliament) Michael Cook, 2014
Majority Rule (Parliament) Michael Cook, 2014

In the exhibition catalogue, the artist, whose heritage is of the Bidjara people of south-west Queensland, says:

‘I was never taught Aboriginal history at school, only about the European settlement of Australia. What I learnt in school was similar to the first European settlers’ beliefs, with words like ‘natives’ and ‘discovery of Australia’. Looking back now, I realise that it was a false way of teaching, and that it hid the truth about the treatment of Aborigines over the past four hundred years.’

Michael Cook’s work is (among other things) a response to that realisation. As such, it makes a profound contribution to the Australian nation’s ‘parliament of dreams’, another voice, a different vision: a dream of what is still possible. The purchase of these works by Federal institutions, including Parliament, is an important symbolic acceptance of the legitimacy of different voices. It is one way in which art both creates and marks the changes is our consciousness, our beliefs and our values. It is one form of resistance against forgetfulness.

PS My particular thanks to Andrew Baker, who made time to talk at length about Michael Cook’s work, the morning after the exhibition opening.  

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