History painting for Waanyi artist Gordon Hookey is about rewriting Australia’s dominant narrative. Or more accurately, retelling it through words and paint, which he has been doing panel by large panel since 2015 in the series Murriland!
While visiting the 10th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (or the APT to its dedicated fans), Hookey’s history paintings were some of the few artworks not already being packed away on the last day. I was immediately struck by the colours and size of the works. Cartoonish history lessons reveal themselves across 10 meters of canvas in Murriland!
Many events, symbols and elements of Australian history are woven together in these panels. A rainbow serpent, a language map of Queensland (or Murriland as Hookey denotes it repeatedly), a tall ship, blond slaves, redcoats, lead bullets travelling through time, the Aboriginal flag at half mast, a porcine-looking Pauline Hansen and cannon balls and skulls are detailed in oils among other iconography. Text accompanies scenes like Captain Cook looking lost on a sandy atoll.
The written word is often conceived of as the material of history, the facts immutable and unchanging in solid history books, but in Hookey’s hands words are malleable and often broken into syllables, misspelled or made up. A recent chapter of the history wars is represented through a bolt (without any nuts) spouting seemingly incomprehensible babble: Arm Black Band Banned Black Armed Black Ban Black Arms Band Ban Black Arm Black Blacks Arms Band. If you know, you know.
Visual puns as well as saucy verbiage reward you the longer you spend looking. So too are overlooked histories revealed.
In Murriland! #2 an Aboriginal warrior stands holding weapons, including spears tipped with rockets. He is Dundalli, of the Dalla nation in southern Queensland, a leader whose guerrilla campaigns against colonists in the area lasted a decade in the first half of the nineteenth century. He wears red shorts and white ochre on his bare chest and the words ‘A warrior, A freedom fighter, A terrorist’ reference the settler-press’s labels for him. Well over 6 feet tall, Dundalli was hanged in Brisbane in 1855. ‘The Spirit of Resistance’ is also inscribed nearby coming at the end of the panel and signalling, perhaps, Hookey’s starting motif for the next in the series (yet to be finished).
This is as much a retelling as it is a re-spelling as Hookey literally re-words our past on the way to depicting a more positive future. Hookey has said:
One of my clichés is English is my second language. I don’t know my first language because the invaders, the colonisers, had taken my first language away from me, therefore the only language I have access to is the coloniser’s language… I [see] that I have a license to use this English any which way I like.1
To depict the history of early Chinese contact and the cordial relations between fifteenth-century sailors and First Nations people, Hookey has them literally drinking cordial together.
Other histories retold include explorers Burke and Wills perishing on their overland journey surrounded by bush foods, fast-bowler Eddie Gilbert (who famously bowled out Sir Donald Bradman), and a map of massacres perpetrated across Queensland. Chosen episodes, icons and symbols are overtly educational and speak to Hookey’s desire to address what he sees as the ‘white male colonial perspective’ from which history has—until recently—been presented. This mainstream understanding of history as composed of a certain narrative to the exclusion of minorities is often invoked by those who fear losing their relaxed and comfortable sense of ‘Australianness’, but Hookey’s work makes explicit that these versions of the past never represented everyone.
Politically-focused art by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists reached new heights in the years leading up to the Sydney Olympics. Writing at the time, critic Benjamin Genocchio noted several characteristics in the work of a group of artists often referred to as urban Aboriginal artists.2 One feature was the non-Indigenous (and often explicitly white-settler) viewer as an important participant in these artworks. Genocchio asked whether this restricted the response of the non-Indigenous viewer to one of two things: anonymous expressions of solidarity or further expressions of racism?3 I find it an interesting exercise to look at this evolving debate about First Nations self-representations. The discomfort of the viewer is an important part of activist aesthetics to which Hookey’s work contributes.
His work has made many viewers uncomfortable over the course of his career. His 1996 painting Bully Min Bin Luck Hup Habrid Jinny Plag depicts a vicious feral pig wearing a police hat and holding two large guns. The Police Association of South Australia objected to the use of the artwork on the invitation to the exhibition ‘Native Title Now’, at Tandanya National Aboriginal Cultural Institute in Adelaide.
In response to then Attorney General Phillip Ruddock claiming Australia’s First People were hunters and gatherers who didn’t progress to invent the wheel, Hookey drew Ruddock’s Wheel.
In the early 2000s Terra ist Act on Whiteman’s Native Title (2002) toured Queensland as part of an exhibition titled ‘Native Title Business’. In Rockhampton, university students held protests and demanded the painting be taken down; while in Bundaberg an anonymous local turned the painting to the wall while others complained to local newspapers.4 In the painting then Prime Minister John Howard was represented as a pig and an aeroplane piloted by kangaroos dive bombed Parliament house.5
In 2004 Sacred nation, scared nation, indoctrination incited debate when it was displayed at the National Gallery of Victoria. Taking aim at Howard’s relationship with U.S. President George W Bush and the Iraq war, Hooky’s painting was deemed ‘offensive and inappropriate’ by ultimately defended by the gallery’s director.
If Hookey’s work is designed to shock the (non-Indigenous) viewer out of their apathy then such controversy must signal success. Even after the positive vibes brought by the Sydney Olympics, artists continued to push and Hookey’s work continued to show his concern for Australia’s colonial past impinging on the present.
Hookey grew up near Townsville on ‘other’ the side of Coppermine Creek. In a 2005 interview he said this was symbolic. ‘That’s where the Aboriginal community lived. It was separate from everyone else.’6 A tone of separateness and exclusion also runs through Hookey’s art, as though his specific mode of brash and in-your-face paintings are designed with a hostile audience in mind. Growing up in a racist town, why wouldn’t you believe this?
However, growing up near the river, a place he describes as a ‘massive playground’, meant he was ‘happiest as a child’. ‘There were plenty of kids, cousins, family. It was the time of your life where I had ultimate freedom. I could go anywhere I wanted when I wanted. Other families looked out for you.’ He attributes his artmaking to this freedom and time spent playing.
It was during his youth that Hookey learned about history from one of his uncles, an inspiring teacher:
He spent hours storytelling. He would get us all in a circle and he would lie on an old spring bed and draw in the dirt while he told us stories and then he'd put each one of us in the story. He played guitar and drew and had a huge impact on me. He could hear a song on the radio and play it straight away.7
In the monumental Murriland! paintings we see this storytelling practice continued. It’s as though you’re sitting with the artist while he paints each iconic or unknown piece of history, he’s telling the tales that go with it and you’re listening, motionless. Here’s how we remember Burke and Wills, this is Dundalli, these are our founding figures, these are the baddies and the goodies from all the childhood stories, writ larger than life and more permanent than a sand sketch.
Hookey’s paintings present history from the perspective of those living it and with the visceral touch of someone on whom this past has impacted deeply.
There are elements in Murriland! that make me chuckle, I feel like an insider in the joke. This might be because I’ve spent the last 7 years studying and teaching about the history Hookey retells. His works read like a who’s who of Australian history puns and gags, some very crass, some very recent. They shout at me but the more I ponder the carefully chosen words and icons, the more I learn about the history of the country from a different perspective. I don’t think Hookey would find it useful for his viewers to feel shame about the past they’ve inherited, instead what he’s proposing is a catharsis and this is the third option that Genocchio didn’t explore when writing that white viewers might only respond with racism or solidarity.
Catharsis for me, viewing Murriland! is the visceral experience of looking at the horror that is Australia’s history and pondering, how artists can continually use humour to unpack that awfulness. And I’m going to laugh.
Murriland #1 was recently acquired by the Home of the Arts (HOTA) on the Gold Coast. Here Hookey explains his relationship to the process of painting.
1 Dawn Chan, A shared language of struggle, New York Times 24 Jan 2021, AR 13.
2 This terminology is now seen as incorrect or at least only useful as a geographic descriptor, it may be offensive to some people for whom the distinction between the city and regional Australia is conflated with authenticity and inauthenticity.
3 Benjamin Genocchio, Activism and Audience in Urban Aboriginal Art, Eyeline 35 Summer 1997-98, 34.
4 Alex Murdoch, Deadlys honour controversial star, Courier Mail 24 Sept 2005, 13.
5 Benjamin Genocchio, Your space or mine? Weekend Australian 30 Nov 2002, B13.
6 Deborah Blashki-Marks, Freedom inspired art; WHAT I’VE LEARNT Gordon Hookey, 44, artist, Townsville, Age 2 July 2005, 4.
7 Blashki-Marks, Freedom inspired art.
This is Artwork 6 in the Slow Looking series, read the others here, or sign up to receive the newsletter monthly direct to your inbox.
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