Michael COOK

I have been making photographs for about 25 years, generally as a freelance commercial photographer. I was at the stage where I was not getting any satisfaction out of the industry, and it wasn’t what I wanted in the long run. I feel that each step in my career has led to the projects that I am now creating. This is the important work—it will live on when I’m gone.

I was raised with a strong understanding of my Aboriginal ancestry thanks to my parents, who adopted me as a baby. Seeing my mother fight for Aboriginal rights through the 1970s and 1980s gave me an understanding of a wide variety of views. I am sure that these childhood experiences have added to the work I am now creating.

When I produce art, I feel a stronger connection with my ancestry. This helps me to understand Australian history—in particular, my history. Each new project introduces me to different communities and people, and I get to learn a little about their life experiences. Through this process, each project moulds its own shape to produce a result. Because I am constantly learning, my aim is for the work to grow in depth. Hopefully, it will have an effect on people in a way that can only be experienced through art.

Michael Cook has extensive experience in photography and exceptional technical capabilities with camera and editing tools, yet he has long harboured a burning desire to join the dialogue in contemporary art. He has come to his new art practice not only with 25 years of experience as a commercial photographer but also with an arsenal of ideas, built up over many years, which are now being translated into spectacular photographs.

Cook’s works operate in an ethereal dream world, a timeless place that traverses colonial and contemporary, sustaining itself on what-ifs and hypothetical situations—a place of Cook’s own modern Dreaming.[1] The central question that populates this world is quite simple: what if the British, instead of completely and summarily dismissing Aboriginal people and their culture, took a more open approach to Aboriginal people, culture and knowledge systems?

Through my eyes 2010, Cook’s first series, was the starting point that introduced audiences to his world. In the series, all 27 prime ministers of Australia are re-imaged, each having distinctively Aboriginal features.[2]

In Cook’s works to date, Aboriginal people have been placed in every role. His all-Aboriginal world is a sort of utopia in which questions can be posed and answered without the complication of race; there is no black and white, there is no right or wrong. These figures are both the colonisers and the colonised. By using Aboriginal people, often in roles diametrically opposed to those to which we are accustomed, Cook ensures that his work is recognised as an Aboriginal dialogue and that an Aboriginal voice is ever-present.

In Undiscovered 2010, Cook questions notions of the ‘discovery’ of occupied lands and examines the coming of the colonial through a series of 10 misty seaside dreamscapes. His images show the arrival of the tall ships that brought irreversible change to Aboriginal people and the Australian continent. However, the red-coated explorer that appears is not the colonial hero-thief Captain James Cook but an Aboriginal man dressed in British naval attire arriving in a tinnie (an aluminium boat powered by an outboard motor).[3]

This Aboriginal man stands to question who really discovered Australia and affirms the artist’s initial line of inquiry: what if Captain Cook could see through the eyes of Aboriginal people? Would the discovery of Australia have been seen for the non-event it was? In jovially playing with many icons of contemporary Australia, the Aboriginal protagonist seems to also question the ongoing perpetuation of these myths through popular Australian knowledge.

In Broken Dreams 2010, Cook tells the tale of a beautiful, proper young woman travelling from the British Isles to the newly formed colony of Australia. When she embarks upon the journey, she is resplendent in her Victorian gown, yet she is followed and perhaps haunted by a Rainbow Lorikeet. As the voyage progresses, she sheds her clothes and loosens her tight hair, going ‘native’. In Cook’s dream world, the colonists look to adopt a more Aboriginal viewpoint and are more open to being more like Aboriginal people. The young woman becomes bound in rope as she reaches her destination, highlighting the difference between the places where her journey began and ended, with one place recognising all people as having rights under law, while the inhabitants of the other were dismissed as not even human. The first images of the series show the might of the British Empire at its height, while the last reflect the reality of their colonial frontier.

Recently, there has been a popular political push to ‘close the gap’ and have Aboriginal people recognised and treated as equally human in today’s Australia. Cook goes one step further, creating an alternate space where Aboriginal people are not just equal but are the norm. Cook goes two steps further, creating an alternate space where Aboriginal people are not just equal, nor have they simply become the norm; rather, they are the only—and, by doing so, Cook draws discussions of colonisation out from the murky waters of race relations. Still, crucial to Cook, his works are ambiguous enough to allow the viewer the central role of interpreter; he has provided a sumptuous storyboard and a hypothetical framework, but the full story is left for the viewer to complete.

Bruce McLean

[1] Michael Cook, interview with author, Brisbane, 16 November 2010.

[2] Through my eyes shares synergies with other, earlier works of art by other artists, such as Richard Bell’s Dreaming/nightmare 1993 in which Bell and a group of Aboriginal children are pictured as federal ministers and parliamentarians. Somewhat remarkably though, Cook’s works were created without knowledge of these earlier works.

[3] Undiscovered recalls the introductory scene of the 1986 Aboriginal mockumentary BabaKiueria in which a boat of Aboriginal men in uniform arrive at an Australian recreational reserve (barbecue area) and plant the Aboriginal flag, creating the Aboriginal nation of BabaKiueria, where Anglo-Europeans occupy the role of the other.