Michael Cook is an award-winning photographer who worked commercially both in Australia and overseas for twenty-five years. In 2009, Cook was drawn into art photography by an increasingly urgent desire to learn about his Indigenous ancestry and explore that aspect of his identity. Cook’s first solo art exhibition, Through My Eyes (2010), contained images of Australian prime ministers overlaid with the faces of Australian Indigenes. This work explored the potential interconnectedness of generations of Australians and its importance was recognised with selection for the Western Australian Indigenous Art Awards 2011 at the Art Gallery of Western Australia.
Cook was adopted and brought up in a family who, while not of Indigenous descent, were heavily involved in supporting Indigenous rights. He said, “I was raised with a strong understanding of my Aboriginal ancestry thanks to my parents… When I produce art, I feel a stronger connection with my ancestry. This helps me to understand Australian history – in particular, my history.” His Aboriginal heritage informs and extends his art.
Cook’s photographic practice is unusual. He constructs his images in a manner more akin to painting than the traditional photographic studio or documentary model. Instead he begins with an idea, regarding the image as his blank canvas. Photographic layering is then used to build the image to provide aesthetic depth. Also, he characteristically works in photographic series. Unfolding tableaux offer enigmatic narratives which are not prescribed but left open to interpretation.
In 2011 he exhibited two new series, Broken Dreams and Undiscovered, together under the title of “Uninhabited”. Their importance was acknowledged when they were acquired by the National Gallery of Australia and shown in UnDisclosed: 2nd National Indigenous Art Triennial. They show Cook’s developing artistic vision in their exploration of incidents from Australian colonial history, both real and imagined. Visually striking, technically complex and with sensitive invention, Cook’s images occupy a new space in the Australian artistic imagination.
His series Civilised (2012) was selected to promote The 7th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT7) at Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art in 2012, and was included in the ground-breaking My Country: I Still Call Australia Home: Contemporary Art from Black Australia (QAGoMA, 2013).
Cook’s latest body of work, Majority Rule (2014), has been selected for inclusion in the international 19th Biennale of Sydney: You Imagine What You Desire.
Michael Cook’s Through My Eyes is a suite of photographic images that portray Australia’s twenty-seven prime ministers: from Edmund Barton (1901–03) to Julia Gillard (2010–13). By morphing the facial features of living Indigenous Australians into the physiognomy of some of Australia’s most prominent historical public figures, the artist challenges the observer to scrutinise these portraits from an alternative point-of-view; that is, through Indigenous eyes. In so doing, these powerful images implore the viewer to reflect upon conventional approaches to history and sanction a re-evaluation of our delusive collective narratives.
Michael Cook’s photographic tableau seduces with its aesthetic, and a black and white tone made radiant with a suffusion of barely visible colour. Placed in a luxurious Victorian-style house, these unfolding scenes of beautifully dressed black people in period costume set up a contradiction, a shock within such civilised interiors, with a naked white person amongst them who becomes, variously, a lamp, a table, a vase, a stool and an ashtray. Object uses a confronting reversal to depict the historic interracial inhumanity once routinely practised – a black person “owned” by a white – and drives home the depravity of carelessly objectifying people. In this series Cook evokes lives, homes and attitudes at a time when slavery was commonplace throughout the world. Slavery was part of Australia’s sugar industry (1863-1904), but even more significant human rights abuses were involved in the colonisation and settlement of the country through policies of theft, genocide and massacre.
– excerpt from essay by Louise Martin-Chew
For more information on Michael Cook, please visit www.michaelcook.net.au