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Cook, Michael - 2016.7.1

Michael Cook

Majority Rule (Tunnel) 2014
inkjet print on paper
84 x 120 cm
Purchased by the Faculty of Science 2015

At the very core of his practice, Brisbane-based photographer Michael Cook has presented an alternative view of the place that we, as Australians, know and inhabit. The places he presents us with are entirely familiar; we have visited them, travelled through them and lived in and around them, many of us for our entire lives. Yet there is something about Cook’s photographs that unsettle the known narratives that inform our ideas of who and what we are as a nation.

Cook often asks big, open-ended, questions about the founding of our nation: What if the British, instead of dismissing Aboriginal society, had taken a more open approach to our culture? What would an Aboriginal Australia look like? He searches for the answers in art.

In each of his major bodies of work Cook positions Indigenous people in every role, including early works such as Undiscovered 2010 and Civilised 2012, in which he casts First Nations people in the roles of the explorers who first documented their travels from Europe to Australia, and Through My Eyes 2010, wherein portraits of the first twenty-seven Australian prime ministers are also portraits of Aboriginal men and women. Majority Rule continues in this trajectory, focusing on the period of Australian modernism, the most intense period of nation building both materially and psychologically, when many icons entered the Australian psyche. It is also a time when Australia viewed and represented itself as exclusively white, with the White Australia policy segregating, deporting and excluding Indigenous Australians and people of colour who had come to work and live here.

In each of the works in the series, multiple versions of a man populate iconic Brisbane city locations: a subway tunnel, a war memorial, a city bus, a bridge in the heart of the city’s central business district. In places where the colonial histories of Australia manifest most clearly, Cook reverses and subverts our expectations by placing an Aboriginal man, well dressed and central to the functions of the place and space, into every role. Cook’s imagery challenges our known history and imagines an alternative world in which the faces of those who were excluded are as prevalent as those who excluded them.

In many ways Cook’s modernist compositions reflect photographs of African modernism, featuring the vibrant architecture and societies of these independent postcolonial megalopolises at the peak of their growth, or the African-American community of Harlem in the 1930s. Images like these are true to many parts of the world, yet all-Aboriginal images broaching Australian nationhood are unsettling to many. In fact, very few images of Indigenous Australians from this period of affluence and modernity exist at all. Cook’s solution to this historical omission is simple; he would create his own images.

The greatest strength of these works is perhaps that they are inherently normal. These images of Aboriginal people and places are not scenes of chaos, dysfunction and lawlessness, but ones of sophistication and industry. Together with Cook’s earlier works, Majority Rule tells a counter-narrative to the dominant version of Australian history, with Aboriginal people playing all roles, from first colonial contacts through to the periods of industrialisation and modernism, inserting Aboriginal voices and images into a history from which Aboriginal voices and faces have been notably absent or excluded.

Bruce Johnson-McLean (Wierdi/Birri-Gubba peoples) is Assistant Director, Indigenous Engagement at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

From the series
Cook, Michael - 2016.7.2
Michael Cook

Majority rule (Bus) 2014
inkjet print on paper
84 x 120 cm
Purchased by the Faculty of Science 2015

Cook, Michael - 2016.7.3
Michael Cook

Majority Rule (Parliament) 2014
inkjet print on paper
84 x 120 cm
Purchased by the Faculty of Science 2015

Cook, Michael - 2016.7.4
Michael Cook

Majority rule (Memorial) 2014
inkjet print on paper
84 x 120 cm
Purchased by the Faculty of Science 2015

Cook, Michael - 2016.7.5
Michael Cook

Majority rule (Bridge) 2014
inkjet print on paper
84 x 120 cm
Purchased 2016

Cook, Michael - 2016.7.6
Michael Cook

Majority rule (Court) 2014
inkjet print on paper
84 x 120 cm
Purchased 2016

Cook, Michael - 2016.7.7
Michael Cook

Majority rule (Senate) 2014
inkjet print on paper
84 x 120 cm
Purchased 2016