First Nations photographer Michael Cook’s images tackle often confronting subjects involving white Australia’s relationship with Indigenous culture – the humour in it comes with an edge.
The humour in Michael Cook’s photography comes with an edge.
While he’s known for images that tackle often confronting subjects involving white Australia’s relationship with Indigenous culture, most of the time, there’s also a whimsy to the works – what Cook calls an openness or softness – which helps make them accessible. But his humour has its genesis in a childhood defence mechanism.
Michael Cook, Laser Girls, from Invasion, 2017
The adopted Indigenous child of a white family, Cook says the humour he employs in his work is informed by growing up in Australia in the 70s and 80s. Bottom line, he says, if you didn’t laugh off the racism, you’d end up in a fight every day: it was that common an occurrence, even among the friends he grew up with. Images such as possums flying, attacking metropolitan London in UFOs, from his 2017 series Invasion, illustrate how Cook wraps confronting messages in light-hearted, almost absurdist imagery. (“I wanted to see how could I shock people in today’s society the same way Aboriginal people were shocked 250 years ago when they saw the tall [English] ships pull up for the first time.”)
Michael Cook, Phone Box, from Invasion, 2017
The comedy, the softness in the work was there for a ‘couple of reasons’, he says, not only as his answer to systemic racism growing up. It’s also informed by the fact he wasn’t brought up in an Aboriginal community or an Aboriginal family. Cook says he missed the “really, really negative stories that get passed down sometimes.” The history is the same, he points out – he’s talking about the same messages as other Indigenous artists, just approaching them from a different direction.
“I create work that has a touch of beauty to it. It has to have a softness or a character behind it. That’s because it connects to a wider community,” he says. “Most Indigenous artwork will have a very, very harsh message. Sometimes it’s upsetting for a lot of viewers, and they can’t look at it. I’m always thinking, what do I want to see on my wall, how do I want to bring that message across?”
Cook says that he aims to let people connect in this openness and take their time with it – not to be so shocked that they want to look away, but that the message creeps up on them. “My family was very open. If I was brought up by my biological mother, the work wouldn’t be the same. I would have had a whole different experience.”
Cook’s brother bought him his first camera when he was 14, and it was on his first overseas trip to Hong Kong a couple of years later that he went ‘photography crazy’. Moving down from Harvey Bay to the Sunshine Coast, he started working in labs when he left school and eventually opened up a glamour studio and shot weddings on and off for about 20 years. It was this experience, he says, that gave him the expertise to put stylists and make-up artists together, building a team to get ‘a certain look.’
Then came the shift into the art world. “In 2009, I’d been thinking about this idea, growing up as an adopted kid in a white community,” Cook says. “I always knew about my Aboriginality, and my mum always made me feel quite proud [of it] when society taught us to be a little bit ashamed. But I had a lot of questions around my own identity because people used to see things in black and white. And when you look at my work, it asks a lot of questions and shows the colours in between.”
Michael Cook, John Howard – 1996-2007, from Through my Eyes, 2010
Around ten years ago, he completed work on his Prime Ministers series – a photographic project entitled Through My Eyes which portrays Australia’s prime ministers, from Edmund Barton in 1901 to Julia Gillard in 2010, through an Indigenous lens. He ‘doorknocked’ galleries until Andrew Baker in Brisbane said he’d show the body of work – on the proviso that Cook gave up all commercial work and concentrated on art for twelve months. The National Gallery of Australia bought the whole series, and Cook has never had to step back to commercial work since.
Michael Cook, Aliment, from Natures Mortes, 2021
His latest work, Natures Mortes, can be seen as a departure from his usual style. Inspired by travels in Europe and impressed by the work of the Dutch masters, he created a series of still lifes, printed on canvas and covered with a gloss laminate, to imitate the masters’ look. But the subject matter is uniquely his: “Each of those images (comprising a tableau of objects piled on tables) relates to some type of impact of colonisation. One has to do with farming, another with oil and mining; there’s another about bush tucker,” he says. Cook maintains it’s his most successful exhibition to date.
Michael Cook, Exploitation, from Natures Mortes, 2021
Not all of his work is so light-hearted. The Mother series from 2015 displays his more serious side. (“It didn’t have a comedy behind it.”) The Indigenous story was still there as it references the Stolen Generation. But Cook sees the work incorporating the more universal theme of adoption and loss. “An artist’s work should be their own lived experience,” he says.
Michael Cook, Mother Tennis, from Mother, 2015
About the author
Stewart Hawkins is a financial journalist, editor and media producer with a passion for photography. He is the deputy editor of Head On Interactional.