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Brook Andrew


Brook Andrew


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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