Gordon Hookey

In 2022, as the Uluru Statement from the Heart and the impending constitutional referendum for a Voice to Parliament for First Nations Peoples loom across the Australian landscape, one can feel the surging wash and churn of the recent political sea change frothing with white foam as it rises and thrusts against the ocean liner of this political change since the 21 May 2022 Australian federal election, in which the old order was decimated and cast into the political wilderness.

All elections bring forth a tumultuous change in the Australian society, as the old order is thrown out like confetti from a departing ship of fools and a new course is set for a journey charting turbulent and dangerous waters of the minds, hearts, and spirit of all of us in our Country, in the nation-state of Australia. 

Over some forty years, Gordon Hookey has crafted and defined meaning to this juggernaut of Australian reality, which has shaped his life and generations before him. A juggernaut that demands the submission and acquiescence of First Nations Peoples in its merciless and destructive path. In challenging this juggernaut of the colonial movement, Gordon has become one of the most inspiring, extraordinary, political artists of our generation alongside his peers, as he deconstructs and reconstructs alternate universes, disrupting and distorting imagery, language, and narrative to posit deep philosophical tenets of our humanity and delighting us with his humour, wit, and razor-sharp commentary. 

As a student in 1989 at the College of Fine Arts (now UNSW Art & Design) in Darlinghurst, Sydney, Gordon recounts how his class were set a task of carrying a mirror, never letting it leave their side, regardless of the menial activities of their lives – washing, sitting on the toilet, lying in bed, sitting in a classroom, walking through streets and gallery exhibitions. The question they were asked to ponder and meditate: who are you? who is the artist? Through this endeavour, his artistic philosophy was explored, realised and articulated, resonant of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “To Thine Own Self, Be True.” Gordon expressed that he was learning to think of himself in the context of international art discourse and his presence as an international artist, and stated that: “My art is an interface where Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal cultures converge, there are a lot of issues and concerns that have to be addressed. There’s a lot of honesty that has to happen in that space, in that interface, where we come together with others. It takes all of us to do something in that space to reflect who we are. I am an example of one person, and it has a familiarity with other blackfellas. I don’t represent anyone, we speak for ourselves.”

In preparation for his current Sydney survey exhibition A MURRIALITY, 30 July – 2 October, at UNSW Galleries and 22 October – 23 December at Brisbane’s Institute of Modern Art, Gordon explains, in response to my question why people considered his work confrontational or controversial as a result of this artistic position, that “they want our spirituality and not our political reality.”

It is interesting that an artist who is true to their vision can be considered “controversial” or “confrontational,” this suggests that there is a prevailing status quo and orthodoxy about art in Australia. The question remains, why. What does this tell us about the very nature of the Australian psyche that it continues to bluster about what is fashionable and what is the aesthetic standard for the Australian sensibility. In 1977 Harold Rosenberg, the New Yorker art critic, responded to a contemporary who dismissed the work of Black Americans as not meeting “aesthetic standards” with the retort that “apparently aesthetics can function as a tool of racism,” and emphasised the social and political contexts in which art emerges. Debra Bricker Balken elaborates in Hyperallergic, in reference to Rosenberg’s “The Herd of Independent Minds,” that “in an age of conformity, brought on by the proliferation of the corporation and consumerist culture, art had become one of the few remaining preserves of originality . . . art criticism should contain more analysis of the cultural predicament of the artists, of what it means to assert one’s individuality in the face of mainstream opposition.”

This is ever the more evident in the paradox of the opus works Murriland! #1, 2017, and Murriland! # 2, 2021, Gordon’s extraordinary and ambitious history of our Country and the Australian nation-state. In Gordon’s rendering of the Murriland grand narrative, each historical vignette reflects the beliefs, truth, and context of First Nations Peoples in their Lands from creation narratives to present day. Symbolic and literal imagery creating a dense canvas of interwoven complexity and contest to the prevailing orthodoxy of Australian mythology, exposing the tales of the colonial juggernaut as it hurtles through history. Gordon’s gift to us is the way he infuses intricate scenes with a First Nations truth-telling and historical fact, ultimately positioning the contest in the retelling of Australia’s history, dissecting and reframing Australia’s narrative from a First Nations perspective with searing incision.

While Murriland! # 1 was bought by HOTA – Home of the Arts, situated in Queensland’s Gold Coast – and loaned to UNSW Galleries for Gordon’s survey exhibition A MURRIALITY, I was perplexed why Murriland! # 2 had not been acquired following its inclusion in the 10th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary art at the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art in Brisbane, and why it remains as a rolled canvas sitting in his studio. 

Gordon states, “What our plight is, is not written, we are primary source material. The value – we understand this, as we understand about each other – we as artists, we present the mirror to society and culture, and people look at it through their own socialisation.”

In Gordon’s studio in Brisbane where he has been for some seven years, a microcosm of the world at large surrounds you, with images and text echoing the social and political discourse permeating modern society. The ceiling-to-floor-length iconic Wall-a-roo banners, 2015, floating in the breeze near the studio entrance as we drink ginger tea and take in the breadth of his poster collection over forty years of his artistic life. Gordon expresses how he contemplates and contextualises how those themes repeat through time, the issues and concerns affecting humanity. He does so with humour, beauty, sharp observation and analysis, parody, and great irony. This terrain of social and political history traverses all that we have known in our generational lifetime.

Gordon has translated this social and political history into his work and highlights that “bearing witness to our moment is an indictment of the now. It’s hard when you get so much material, to actually determine what is good stuff, you know. You’ve got to contextualise everything.”

Gordon “Gordy” Hookey was born in Cloncurry (the “Curry”) in 1961, a Waanyi Man whose vast Clan estate traverses the stunningly beautiful Gulf country filled with the soft sway of eucalypts. The red timeless earth providing a canvas for its myriad of stark visual images and the air pierced with the sound of cockatoos and kookaburras, with waterways filled with crocodiles and barramundi in a country where the earth touches the sky. He grew up “Up the Hill, Over the Coppermine Creek, in Cloncurry, My Childhood Home,” and his images in his studio reveal his old home, assembled from corrugated iron tin sheets, a lone singular dwelling on the landscape, a deeply resonant memory for Gordon. He describes all this as he highlights a new banner work that captures this memory and contextualises in the here and now with the disturbing national crisis of homelessness: “Houses are homes, NOT inve$t meant.”

In 1983, Gordon finished his industrial bricklayer apprenticeship in Mount Isa and moved to Brisbane to study, staying at a student hostel at Highgate Hill. Students from different unis and blackfellas included Michael Aird, Tracey Bunda, Kev Carmody, Ribna Green, Jackie Huggins, Linda Levi, Gary Lui, Chris Matthews , Sandra Phillips,  Aaron Ross, Isabel Tarago, and Kathy Willetts. These heady student days were filled with some of the memorable events of being in Brisbane during this time. Brisbane was yet to flourish, sleepily waiting for its new gallery, performing arts centre, and museum, and mired in the conservative oppressive fascism of a Bjelke-Petersen government. He went on to study at Mt. Gravatt, eventually arriving in Sydney to study at the College of Fine Arts in Darlinghurst. Gordon recounts meeting Mr Joe Croft at Cooee Art Gallery in Oxford Street, who welcomed him with a cup of tea and a biscuit; and later meeting his daughter Brenda L. Croft at Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Co-operative in Meagher Street, Chippendale. 

This was the beginning of a wonderful introduction for Gordon to the art world in Sydney, living in a hostel and seeing the emergence of Boomalli, and the opening celebration Boomalli Au Go Go with its legendary trailblazer artists – Aunty Euphemia Bostock, Tracey Moffatt, Brenda L. Croft, Avril Quaill, Arone Meeks (dec.) and Michael Riley (dec.), Fiona Foley, Fern Martens, Bronwyn Bancroft, and Jeffrey Samuels  – with a who’s who of the vibrant arts scene in Sydney at that time.

He recalls seeing Gordon Syron’s seminal work Judgement by His Peers, 1978, and reflects that it was one of the overt political works he has seen, “In my psyche, that work reeked of such power.” He was in Canberra and visited Avril at the National Gallery of Australia, who showed the work in the collection. In awe he said, “The colour and concentration and I perceived it in person – it was magnificent.” As a young artist, Gordon and Elaine Syron bought Gordon’s first works, three large paintings ranging from $900 to $1,500 from an exhibition he had at Boomalli.

Gordon reflected on that time, “Boomalli was a catalyst for my practice, as an artist your opportunity comes from your peers – cannot comprehend professional jealousy, you need supportive environments – Jen, Richie, Vern, Loz, Bianca, Andria, Tony, all the people at proppaNOW. The community and feeling were so conducive.”

Gordon’s artistic career has been shaped by influential residencies, national and international, providing connection with other First Nations artists across the world: partying and being with global peers, feeling the decimation of culture through colonisation but also the innovation and reinvention of culture and knowing that they were all, no matter where they were located, “building from the ashes of destruction of culture” with their conversations, critical dialogues, and art, challenging the status quo of the art market and learning how to change their community dynamics through solution-sharing. From Banff, Canada, to Europe, the Middle East, the United Kingdom, the United States of America, and across communities throughout Australia, Gordon highlights the strength and impact of those experiences on his work. 

His last decade has seen his arrival in Brisbane and his involvement with the proppaNOW collective, his valued relationship with Milani Gallery, and the birth of his children, Josh and Leon. His studio is a haven for intense creative exploration. 

In 2016, he was invited by curator Vivian Ziherl to participate in the Frontier Imaginaries exhibition in Jerusalem, at the Al-Ma’mal Foundation in collaboration with the Shu’fat Palestinian refugee camp, for The Jerusalem Show VIII: Before and After Origins. The exhibition questioned the “category of ‘origins’ through relational considerations of the outcomes of colonisation and the power and sense of territorial belonging.”

He recounts how he didn’t want to go as “everything was rosy and beautiful because of [my] children, art was insignificant and secondary and my critters were the most beautiful in the universe . . . you were put through severe security by Israelis, to go in, work on the project with other Palestinians with the closest refugee camp, Shu’fat . . . it reminded me of the worse conditions of an Aboriginal mission maybe thirty years ago, fifty times bigger, surrounded by massive concrete walls and every time you go in or out, you run the gauntlet of the occupying Israeli military, two to three young soldiers with assault rifles, everywhere, walking around, it told me what an occupied country looked like even though it’s a spiritual hub of Christianity, one extreme to the other, spirituality is about our humanity, in a sense it’s about our soul, our faith, it’s about the positive, beautiful, and good things that we all aspire to want to feel, it’s a feel good element to us, but you’ve got this ugliness right beside. Al-Ma’mal were negotiating how everything was going to happen . . . tells me about colonial power, government, subjugation and oppression . . . tells me how divide and conquer is still a severe strategy, first hand, their negotiation got so aggressive and angry, that those from outside the refugee camp, their safety wasn’t assured, in the gallery the angst and tension that Palestinians were living with, searched by leaning against the wall, and patted down, with stories of young Arabs strip-searched . . . one girl who was there spent a lot of time crying. After a whole two months of being there it weighed on me, I got angry again, the world just didn’t seem rosy anymore, I felt angry, the injustice that is happening in the world with humanity, with our people just terrified again. I came back from Jerusalem not feeling the same way that I was. My children told me what humanity was, Jerusalem told me what it wasn’t, showed me what it wasn’t, to see the violence and brutality. And I came back swinging, still swinging. The oppressive weight of injustice. The truth is there and honesty is there –but powers that be will tell you what you see isn’t true or real . . . and it’s something that artists, we look and we can read between the lines to see the injustice, and I try and fill in those gaps. 

I am an example of one person and it has a familiarity with other blackfellas. I don’t represent anyone – we speak for ourselves. My critters came along and I’m wrapped in the love for my critters – I get back and that’s all that mattered to me, their safety, security and wellbeing – yeah that was paramount for me. I forgot about all the world’s trouble when they were born, for nearly two years – I suffered economically for my art – I already made my little art with my boys, and Jerusalem got me back to where I was, the fire lit up again after I saw what happened to the Palestinians, to the Arab people.”

In 2017, documenta 14 – the Olympics for the visual arts held in Kassel, Germany and extending to Athens – invited Gordon’s work Murriland! # 1 to be exhibited. Alongside the Congalese artist who has since seemingly disappeared, Tshibumba Kanda Matulu, who painted about Belgium’s King Leopold’s “savagery” in the Congo. documenta positioned Gordon Hookey in a world discourse to understand the position of First Nations as they relate their worldview and attach to the overall understanding of humanity and global human rights.

documenta 14 curator Hendrik Folkerts was friends with Frontier Imaginaries curator Vivian Ziherl, who had previously shown Gordon’s work. As Gordon highlights, “the work was invited to be in documenta, not me, but my art as it should be so.” He tells of the experience, “Germany treated us so well. I was a VIP right from when I arrived. I was on a pedestal, meeting at the airport with my name. Athens was the highlight because of contested history. Kassel was the city was where all the art and books and everything that was subversive to Hitler’s vision, considered derogatory, was taken to be burned. Which is why documenta was in Kassel – Germany giving back to humanity – artists that speak for rights and human conditions. Whereas Venice is a commercial gallery on steroids – stinks of money.”

In 2021, he collaborated with Gary Simmons for the exhibition Sacred Nation, Scared Nation, at Fort Gansevoort, New York, about Trump, fascism, and the ensuing fall-out of his presidency. This received both a New York Times article by Dawn Chan, “Two Artists, Continents Apart, and a Shared Language of Struggle,” and a New York Times review, “4 Art Gallery Shows to See Right Now,” by Martha Schwendener: “Hookey often focuses on popular spectacles, and the sinister hooded figures appear as audience members and occasional stars of his paintings. Trump, Elvis Presley, Osama bin Laden and a host of soccer players and political figures also appear throughout the paintings, which serve as sharp critiques of racism, colonialism and systemic oppression . . . [and] is laudable, fearless and inspiring.”

An international artist, Gordon’s focus is a profound First Nations worldview in the international art discourse of our turbulent times. To hold the mirror to society is both a responsibility, an act of love, and a deep abiding respect for our humanity. We need Superheroes!    

This article was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 60, 2022.
Images courtesy the artist, Copyright Agency, Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane, Milani Gallery, Brisbane, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Sydney, and UNSW Galleries, Sydney.

22 October – 23 December 2022
Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane

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