Born in Sydney and university educated, Brook Andrew is an artist, curator, lecturer and writer who is connected through his mother’s kinship to the Wiradjuri who live around Cowra in New South Wales. Through his work in a variety of areas, Andrew, a fervent and forthright social commentator, explores the history of race relations in Australia, colonialism, ethnography, cultural identity, gender politics, globalization, and other themes by employing powerful postmodern imagery, delivered with sociological savvy and slick visual appeal. His high impact, high-energy works are immediate, urgent, and can be at once both beautiful and humourous. They comment on, and elicit responses from, both Indigenous and non-indigenous viewers through a variety of computer-generated photo-media including conventional screen print, neon projected on to large-scale screens lit from behind, and printing on to Duraclear, a material conventionally used in advertising. Created on a large scale, and produced in a refined yet glossy pop style his works are provocative, challenging, and visually dynamic. To Brook Andrew the political is inseparable from the artistic – Art is Polemic, His most recognisable image, and the work that shot the artist to political and artistic prominence, is titled Sexy and Dangerous 2002. It is a name that encapsulates a clever double entendre; poking fun at the art world, whilst implicitly and more seriously, criticising a number of remnants of colonialist thought that continue to exist in society in general. The nineteenth-century archival image depicts the head and torso of a naked virile and handsome young man adorned only in ceremonial body paint, nose-bone and headdress, set against Mandarin and English text. It is a play on the notion of ‘the noble Aboriginal savage’. The archival ‘ethnographic’ image is a studio photograph taken at the turn of the twentieth century, with the purpose of recording species in the colonies (in particular, dying species) to be sent back to England; part curiosity, part documentation. By placing such an image in a contemporary context Andrew invokes a dangerous politic. One which argues that just like early 20th century ethnographic photography, a century later we are just as prone to conventional categorisations in relation to the black body; the black artist and black art. Just as with Tracy Moffatt and Gordon Bennett who refuse to be categorised as ‘Aboriginal’ artists, to describe Andrews as a contemporary Aboriginal artist should be done with some hesitation. Part of the ongoing dialectic of Andrew’s work is a challenge to that kind of casting, by which the art world defines artists, and in doing so, makes them marketable. ‘When I first started making art, people would label me as ‘the gay black artist’… But at the end of the day, I’m part of a broader art spectrum’ (Andrews, speaking on Message Stick, ABC, 2004). Beyond his own art practice, Brook Andrew has, in recent years, assumed an active role in cultural politics, convening the program ‘Blakatak’ at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, 2005, and delivering a paper at the Globalisation and Post-colonial Writing conference in Kolkutta, India. ‘Blakatak’, the onomatopoeic title taking root in the so called ‘blak art' movement, represents a unique development of Andrew’s self-identified position as a political shaker. Rather than facilitating a program of thought centred around Aboriginal art per se, Andrews chose to bring into focus an exploration of a ‘non-culturally dominant approach’ to contemporary art (Meanjin, 2005: 142). Interesting, because as Andrews perspicaciously observes, discussions set around an oppositional dialectic (us/them, blak art/art world) often only serve to reinforce that very divide. This broad awareness of cultural hybridity is manifest in Andrew’s art. His most recent work might be described as a study in detournement, or ‘culture jamming’ – the destabilisation of image through the introduction of a distortive visual or textual element. Blair French (1999) writes ‘a difficulty of Brook Andrew’s work – and also a source of its fascination – [is] a simultaneous aestheticisation and critique of the image’. In later works Andrew has added an ongoing textual element to his work that deliberately, sometimes violently, goes against the grain of the image. In Dhally Yullayn (Passionate Skin) 2005, nationalist symbols are set against each other as warring images, the Australian emu eating (or vomiting) the acronym USA, to the backdrop of the Union Jack. The title belies the violence of the image. If success in getting your message across is measured in prominence, then Brook Andrew has surely succeeded, to this point in time at least. The notoriety Andrew has enjoyed since creating Sexy and Dangerous in 2002 has enabled him to continue to push artistic boundaries on a number of fronts. In 2004 he produced a series of black nudes on Cibachrome. These works titled Kalar Midday (Land of the Three Rivers) are starkly beautiful and no less provocative than his early work. His 2005 exhibition Peace and Hope at the Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi suggested a more transcendental direction, perhaps the expression of a less reactionary, more considered, academic Andrew. Not that he is likely to give up producing high impact work. His popular acclaim lies in the fact that he is both playful and political, delivering dangerous work with a spoonful of sugar. The saccharine, illuminated canvasses allow us to laugh at ourselves and instinctively feel guilty for laughing and then, perhaps, to understand something of the political message. Brook Andrew created no less than ten solo exhibitions between 1996 and 2006 as well as participating in Australian Perspecta 1995 at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the Adelaide Biennial of Australian Art in 1996; participating in important exhibitions in New Caledonia, the Netherlands and Japan; and undertaking several overseas residencies throughout 2000-2006. In 1998 he was won the Kate Challis RAKA Award, for an artwork by an Aboriginal visual artist and in 2004 won the Work on Paper Award at the 21st Telstra National Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Art Award.
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