Hendrik Folkerts: Gordon, you grew up in a rural area of Queensland, in the small town of Cloncurry, then moved to Sydney to go to art school in 1989. Starting out at school then, when people like Gordon Bennett—whose practice was seminal in exposing the complex construction of the exclusion of Aboriginal people from art-making in Australia—were just leaving the academy, what kind of context or legacy did you feel yourself presented with?
Gordon Hookey: An art practice is one of accumulation, where you build on what has been done in the past. Being an Aboriginal, a blackfella, as well as an artist, acknowledging the past is part of the protocol. I am only doing what I am doing and I have only got what I have as a result of those that went before. People like Gordon Bennett, Richard Bell, Kevin Gilbert, Lin Onus, and the members of the Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Cooperative in Sydney—all those artists that have gone before have broken down barriers and made major inroads into urban-based political art.
Vivian Ziherl: Prior to that moment, Aboriginal artists were largely framed as practitioners of a tradition within Australian and international art. So it was really at this moment in the late ’80s that great convulsions occurred within the art-historical and political discourses. People like Gordon Bennett brought about a reckoning by insisting that his identity could not be defined by anybody else. He held a complex position, insisting on his Aboriginality, and yet refusing to be labeled an “Aboriginal artist.”
GH At one stage, all the work was about identity. Gordon, who passed away in 2014, was part of that wave. They addressed it and made it passé so we don’t have to deal with it, and then we could go on building.
VZ Perhaps that work can be seen as part of a deep, long-standing practice of rebellious culture aimed at achieving cultural sovereignty? Earlier this year I had the honor of working with Richard Bell on a project centered on the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, which was erected opposite Old Parliament House in Canberra in 1972. Richard argues that the Tent Embassy stands as the greatest work of performance art in Australian history, linking the activists behind it to theater practices that were then emerging from the National Black Theatre in Redfern, a suburb of Sydney, and, in the United States, from Amiri Baraka’s Black Arts Repertory Theatre in Harlem.
GH Oh, the audacity of that time! And the contradiction of the Indigenous people, us, having an embassy on our own land, in front of this big white parliament house, where in fact it should be the other way around.
HF Gordon, you can be quite confrontational in your work. Take, for example, the painting Poor Fella U (2012), at the top of which you write: “Sorry! / Fuck sorry! / Sorry can go git’t fucked! / Give’s the really lubbly, deadly, big, solid, golden sorry,” or a work in which images of political figures are painted on a punching bag.
GH My work is not only about resistance and protest, it’s also about empowerment. If I am dealing with a situation where Aboriginal people are subjugated, dehumanized, or treated unjustly, I subvert the scenario, turn it around to make blackfellas strong, powerful, and victorious. That artwork you mention, King Hit (For Queen and Country) (1999), is a cathartic response—putting on boxing gloves and punching away the source of one’s pain.
HF Can I ask you, Vivian, as someone who studied political science in Brisbane, and being part of a community that I assume would resist structural racism against Indigenous people: How is it for you relating to some of the issues that Gordon puts on the table, coming from a position of great political affinity but sometimes also having a problem speaking about it?
VZ Growing up in Queensland in the 1980s and ’90s, we had no formal education about colonial history in Australia. The public view was that there had been no violent colonization, and that was the stance supported in my family and social life.
Speaking personally, it took a dedicated process of coming to terms with certain truths to be in a position where I could work meaningfully in relation to images such as Gordon’s. I guess it’s this process that I continue through my curatorial work, in the hope that it contributes to a broader social project. It’s an honor to now be able to work with an artist such as Gordon, and I’m grateful to have been professionally formed in a cultural space where figures such as Bell, Bennett, Fiona Foley, Vernon Ah Kee, and others have been such strong and locally felt presences.