On the occasion of Gordon Hookey’s first solo exhibition at a major Australian institution, contributing writer Michael Young speaks with the Australian First Nations artist about his art, life and the politicism of being Aboriginal Australian.
TEXT: Michael Young
IMAGES: Courtesy of various
Australian First Nations artist and activist Gordon Hookey’s Brisbane studio is cluttered with art detritus. Not that I have been in it. I haven’t. But the photographs he showed me when we met recently at the UNSW Galleries in Sydney, on the eve of his first Australian solo survey exhibition, fascinated me almost as much as his paintings intrigued me. He has occupied the space for seven years. One wall is covered by a 14-metre-long collage of posters and prints that he has amassed over the years and which now form a visual memory. In a cheap threadbare chair sits a life-size skeleton. It is a chilling memento mori. I can almost hear the bones rattling.
Every artist should aspire to a studio like Hookey’s, a space that is both visually and intellectually stimulating—a horror vacui—with no corner left untouched by years of accumulated stuff. The studio is a bricolage representing three decades of art practice from printmaking and video, to sculpture and painting. “My imagination is so hyperactive once I start working on a painting. I end up adding this and that and ideas become complex,” he says. The same could be said for the studio.
Even though the studio measures 16 by 12 metres. I couldn’t help wondering how long could Hookey continue working there before the tsunami of clutter forced upon him a tactical retreat and he disappeared out through the doors and along the corridor looking for another space to turn into a personal Merzbau. Not that there is anywhere left for him to retreat to. Several other artists have set up shop there since 2015 when what was once the old Taubman’s paint factory closed. The artist fraternity now in residence is stellar. Hookey rattles off several names—Richard Bell, Judy Watson, Ross Manning, and Ryan Presley. Even since it closed, the red brick building has been well maintained and in the low-lying evening sun the façade glows fiery red. In some studios even the air conditioning still works, I am told. A blessing in Brisbane’s summer-induced lassitude.
Hookey is from the Waanyi people. He was born in Cloncurry in far north Queensland in 1961 and the Waanyi land crosses the state boundary into the Northern Territory. Hookey describes his childhood as the happiest time of his life. As fate would have it, he studied art in Sydney at the Alexander Mackie College which morphed eventually into the UNSW Galleries/School of Art and Design where we sat and talked. He gained a fine art degree but also a determination that his future would be spent as an artist. There would be no half measures. No compromises. But in the early years, times were tough and money scarce. He recalls how his determination led him to sleep in bus shelters or even on long-distance bus journeys, so he didn’t have to look for a place to sleep. He signed on to the “dole” and accepted the fact that he would have to go through the charade of looking for work while getting on with painting. He spent a decade travelling around Australia and overseas—Canada, New Zealand and England—before washing up in Brisbane after the death of his mother. He had been her primary carer for over a year and after “she passed I was kind of a little lost,” he says. proppaNow—the First Nations art collective established in 2003 and based in Brisbane of which he is a founding member—saved him. “proppaNow were firing on all four cylinders and they offered me sanctuary, they offered me a home, they offered me love, and were a family away from family. They cared for me, [and] I found myself working in a studio there alongside Tony Albert, Vernon Ah Kee, Richard Bell, Jennifer Herd, and Laurie Nilsen,” he says. All First Nations art luminaries.
As we sat in the UNSW Galleries enjoying Hookey’s solo show, I couldn’t help but dwell on a startling contradiction. His work, which now hangs in several state galleries in Australia, has never before been honoured with a survey show in an institutional gallery in this country over his 30 years of painting. “A MURRIALITY” at the UNSW Galleries is the first.
I ask why he feels he has never had a solo show in an institutional gallery until today. He pauses before answering but then is unequivocal. “I’m a solitary person. I don’t actively pursue exhibitions because I am too involved in my art-making in the studio. I don’t go to dinner parties. I don’t do networking, or actively pursue opportunities. I would just rather be in the studio focusing on the creative process and making art.”
Although Hookey’s oeuvre is mixed, it is the paintings on which his reputation rests. Not only for their overall visual impact but also for their arresting use of acerbic text, clichés, alliteration, puns, and sometimes even a poetic turn of phrase are all pressed into service to highlight and prosecute his unrelenting political agenda that rails against the inequities suffered by First Nations people at the hands of the British colonisers who stumbled ashore in 1770 on land that they misguidedly claimed as terra nullius.
Was he, I ask, always a political animal? “From the moment you are a black fella, you are political. Everything [we] do as First Nations people is political. [But] all we are doing is dealing with the reality of government policy [and] a system that misinforms or deceives. [It’s] how we see the world and deal with issues, and concerns related to our injustices and reality. The audience may not like what they see [but] if it is viewed as politics then that is ok,” he says.
Hookey is the living manifestation of the idiom: What you see is what you get. Although often described as a senior artist he possesses a youthful air of disaffected bonhomie.
I ask—with deliberate provocation—if there is a war going on in Australia. He snaps back without hesitation. “I think there is. The frontier exists and it always has in this country. It isn’t trenches, it isn’t shelling and bombing. It is a cognitive, emotional and spiritual frontier of struggle for First Nations people,” he says.
And it is this struggle that lies at the core of Hookey’s practice. Many of his canvases are large. Murriland! #1 (2015–17) and Murriland 2 (2022) for example—both exhibited earlier this year at the 10th Asia Pacific Triennale (APT10) at the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art. They demand attention. Each measured two by 10 metres and perhaps are best described as Hookey’s magnum opus, a tangled melange of comic intensity, one of blackfellas in chains through which indifferent colonisers make their way and a serpent slides across the canvas. They are painted with precision and with carefully graduated colours by an artist in love with the physical materiality of the medium. He has always sought to use the “best available canvas and oil paint,” he says.
That was until recently when making his utilitarian banner series made him switch to “Cheap calico and acrylic paint.” The banners are used on political rallies and if they get damaged in the robust environment of a political rally it just doesn’t matter,” he explains. But furthermore, he feels acrylic’s quick drying abilities has also liberated him. Trenchant colloquialisms, and aphorisms pepper the banners. He has his fingers firmly on the lingua franca of the streets and will even make up words if necessary to make a point.
Hookey has a way with words. They seem to bounce around him in an arena where obfuscation is resolutely not welcome. What he says possesses the clarity of “a lived life” and I wonder why politicians don’t talk to him to gain a first-hand perspective on the victimisation that First Nations people experience on a daily basis.
But beneath his overtly coercive language with its hidden subtleties and humour is a confrontation that he doesn’t shy away from. It is as tough and direct as a heavyweight boxer’s punch. The confrontation with entrenched colonialism.
Where does this come from I ask? Had his family been touched by the Stolen Generation? “My great-grandfather was of Chinese ancestry. He married a Waanyi woman who had four children with him, three boys and one girl. My grandfather was one of them. My grandmother’s family, her sisters and brothers, were taken away from their traditional land and put in the mission on Mornington Island in the Gulf of Carpentaria. The lineage is strong and with the suffering that they must have experienced still raw although decades ago. Then abruptly the conversation shifts back to the studio before returning to the bitterness brought about by colonialisation.
“I don’t use assistants,” he says. “I paint everything myself. Because if assistants come in I spend more time socialising and talking, distracted from what I need to do. They take away from the creative processes. The way I operate is the artwork has a life of its own and once I start, sometimes it is like the art paints itself because the concept leads the work—I might have basic sketches from my visual diary , but once I start and get into the zone, I might end up in the studio for a couple of days.” He reveals, “Sometimes it has been a problem for me because sometimes it takes so long for me to finish an artwork.”
Then in a few brief sentences laced with bitterness, Hookey says, “Because of colonisation my history was stolen from me, as well as my culture. I often say English is my second language; I say I don’t know my first; because colonialism stole it from me. With searing brutality and atrocious violence, the English colonisers took my culture and replaced it with theirs, without my consent or choice. Therefore, I have an open license to utilise their imposed language and culture any way I want, with unrestrained imagination and absolute freedom within my art practice.” The atmosphere seemed to heat up around him.
As a text in Murriland! #1 describes of the action of the British invaders notes: “That makes it ok, to invade, dehumanise and commit the most terrible, horrible, heinous, brutal, barbaric, genocidal atrocities on these human beings.”
It is an uncompromising position for an artist, and I wonder if I am being fooled by Hookey’s garrulous bonhomie as I briefly glimpse something fearsome beneath his casual and gentle manner.
30 July – 2 October 2022
UNSW Galleries, Sydney
22 October – 23 December 2022
Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane
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