Michael Cook's 'What-if' Retake on Australia's History

When Captain James Cook first arrived on Australian shores on that historic day in 1770, he wrote in his journal that the Aboriginal people ‘may appear to some to be the most wretched people upon Earth, but in reality they are far more happier than we Europeans’. It is this journal entry that has inspired the Indigenous artist Michael Cook to create his recent series, entitled ‘Civilised’, many generations and centuries later. The work poses many ‘what-if’ questions, specifically: ‘what if the British had realised Aborigines were indeed civilised? Would history have been different?’

Indigenously focussed and produced art is a growing genre in Australia. It is increasingly recognised and appreciated, with the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) in Brisbane exhibiting ‘My Country, I Still Call Australia Home: Contemporary Art from Black Australia’ during 2013. Michael Cook was a contributor to this exhibition, with his ‘Civilised’ series. He also featured in the 7th Asia-Pacific Triennial that was exhibited over 2012 and 2013 at GOMA. The ‘My Country’ exhibition presented Indigenous views of history, illustrations of connections to place, and responses to contemporary politics and experiences. Ranging between sculpture, video, photography and traditional dot-painting, there was a strong thread that bound these diverse artists and works: the desire to tell their stories and share their experiences.

Michael Cook’s ‘Civilised’ series runs in both an historical and political thread, in that he uses history to make modern political commentary. Using his expertise in digital image-making and post-production techniques, Cook depicts a range of Indigenous Australian people dressed in period attire from colonial Spain, England, France and the Netherlands. If the Aborigines had appeared in a more European perspective of ‘civilised’, in both attire and attitude, would history have been written differently? Little known to those first European explorers and settlers, the Indigenous Australians were in fact highly civilised, with a strong sense of community and ritual. Why was being civilised about fashion, speech, cultivating the land and having Christian beliefs?

Before becoming a full-time artist, Cook was a successful commercial fashion photographer, and this background merged effectively into his artistic practice, strongly evident through the dramatic staging of the works and in the poses and attire of the subjects of ‘Civilised’.

The dramatic but simple composition connects to the drama and simplicity of the question the works pose to the viewer: what if the British had taken a more open approach to the traditions and customs of Aboriginal society, rather than dismissing them? The images in the series are designed to look like traditional formal European photographs, and the relatively simple composition allows the viewer to focus immediately on the subject of the picture. Some of the images also subtly incorporate text taken from the journals of some other Europeans that recorded their initial contact with the Australian natives. The work has an almost ethereal mood to it, due to the subdued palette creating a dream-like and timeless atmosphere. 

The ‘Civilised’ series intends to re-imagine Australia’s history with social and racial boundaries no longer existent. Cook also used these images to embark on a personal journey, to rediscover and understand his own Aboriginal history, stating:

When I produce art, I feel a stronger connection with my ancestry. This helps me to understand Australian history—in particular, my history.
(Michael Cook, quoted in Seventh Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, ex. cat.) 

As the artist is of Aboriginal descent, it gives the work a uniquely Indigenous perspective, and the connection Cook has with his ancestry strongly influences the work. The restaging of the past allows the pieces to have a liberating sense of possibility. The world the artist imagines is almost utopian, in that there is no black or white, right or wrong, and questions can be posed without complication of race or equality. The figures depicted are both conquerors and conquered. 

‘Civilised’, although creating an imagined past, addresses the idea of boundaries strongly founded in reality through a political, historical and social perspective. The images are executed to a high standard, almost believably being able to pass as genuine historical documents to someone unaware of the true story of Australia’s past, and in this, a type of paradox is created: the technical finesse of the works makes them seem like records of actual events, yet they have a strong dreamlike and surreal atmosphere and in fact, never actually occurred. It is this contradiction of reality and fiction that makes the artwork so significant. Cook is perhaps revealing that in this digital age we can literally picture reality any way we like. More importantly, he has created a duality of fact versus fiction that directly parallels the either/or duality of the European’s judgment of the Aborigines to be civilised or savage, based purely on outward appearances. 

The artwork highlights that history could have gone either way, and recognising this is important to creating a better understanding of the decisions that were made and problems that consequently arose and continue through to this day. Cook has created a seemingly absurd and surreal piece that leaves us questioning our own decisions and the consequences they may have on our own realities.

 

Michael Cook, Civilized #4, 2012. Inkjet print on paper, 100 x 87cm. Edition of 8. Image courtesy of the artist and Andrew Baker Art Dealer, Brisbane.

Michael Cook, Civilized #10, 2012. Inkjet print on paper, 100 x 87cm. Edition of 8. Image courtesy of the artist and Andrew Baker Art Dealer, Brisbane.

Michael Cook, Civilized #11, 2012. Inkjet print on paper, 100 x 87cm. Edition of 8. Image courtesy of the artist and Andrew Baker Art Dealer, Brisbane.