Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, Australia’s original inhabitants, make up just 3 per cent of the nation’s population of 23 million people. But in photographer Michael Cook’s works, they form the dominant culture. Aboriginal people in 18th-century British naval attire sit dreamily on horseback on the clean sands of an Australian beach. Aboriginal businessmen in classic 1960s suits stalk the streets with briefcases in hand. Rows of Aboriginal politicians fill up the green leather seats of Parliament House. And 27 of Australia’s prime ministers are reimagined as Aborigines, their features transposed and reformed until they take on the appearance of indigenous Australians. “We have such a small percentage of people identifying themselves as Aboriginal in Australia and I wanted to examine what would happen if the roles were reversed,” says Cook. “When you go back through all my work, what I want to do is to keep it open and ask a lot of questions. My feeling is that if you ask questions about the past, you get answers for the future.” Cook, himself of indigenous background, was adopted into a white family at birth in 1968 and only met his natural mother 15 years ago. His latest series, mother (brought to Art Basel by Melbourne’s This Is No Fantasy + Dianne Tanzer Gallery), examines his own history and Australia’s infamous “stolen generation”—the indigenous children forcibly removed from their families under government policy between 1900 and the 1960s to be brought up by white families or in institutions. Cook hopes the work will appeal to people with no knowledge of Australia’s past. “It’s the first time I’ve felt really comfortable in showing at an international level. Because all my work has had a really strong Australian political sense to it, when I’ve taken it outside Australia I don’t know whether an international audience has really got it. I’m hoping with this body of work that it can be read on many different levels.”
Text by Peter Shadbolt; Images courtesy of the artist and This Is No Fantasy + Dianne Tanzer gallery.