The rowdy satire of Gordon Hookey: ‘I don’t take my art seriously at all’ | Art

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The rowdy satire of Gordon Hookey: ‘I don’t take my art seriously at all’ | Art

In the paintings of Waanyi artist Gordon Hookey represent armies of tough kangaroos and other native animals, such as possums, goannas, crocodiles and snakes, Australia’s indigenous peoples. Invasive species such as sugar cane frogs and camels meanwhile represent “the ugliness of invasive peoples for our lands, country and culture”.

The 61-year-old’s art is funnier than it might suggest and shocking in its rowdy satire. Politicians are pigs in his paintings, which tend to be visual commentaries on land rights, deaths in custody and environmental degradation. English, for Hookey, is the language of the colonizers, and he takes liberties on his canvases with playful puns and misspellings: “terrorists” become “terra-ists”, evoking the colonial myth that Australia was a pristine terra nulliusor land that belongs to no one.

“I don’t take my art seriously at all,” he says. “I’m having fun with it. i play I’m silly.”

A MURRIALITY, on view in UNSW Galleries. Photo: Jacquie Manning

Is anger ever a factor in his work? “Anger can destroy you from the inside,” he says. “I do feel anger, but somehow it turns into passion. People can interpret passion and intensity of feeling as anger. But when you feel strongly about something, you are able to articulate in a certain way.”

Genial and smiling, often roaring with laughter, Hookey speaks loudly – ​​a legacy of four years as an industrial mason from the age of 16, cutting bricks between the deafening concentrators and smelters of the Mount Isa mines. Much of his hearing “has weakened over time,” he says, meaning he has trouble hearing higher frequencies. When his sons Josh (11) and Leon (9) talk to him, he often answers with “yes?”

Gasp titled Poohtin on display in UNSW Galleries
Hookey’s Poohtin at UNSW Galleries. Photo: Jacquie Manning

In his first career survey, A MURRIALITY, currently showing at UNSW galleries and touring nationally in 2023, Hookey’s concerns have gone global. He worries that Australia will follow the American lead and allow right-wing zeal to flourish. The survey includes a series of new works designed to resemble protest banners; on one part Fox expert “Tukka Cullsin” and “Don the Con” a can of Kremlin Condensed KGB shit, which looks like Campbell’s soup.

“The reason I’m doing all these works about Trump is because it’s so unfair that a con artist is believed by so many people,” says Hookey. To him, Maga means “Most Abhorrently Gullible Americans” and the “horrible things” they said during Trump’s presidency changed the way conservative Australian politicians spoke.

Artworks Holy nation, scared nation, indoctrination on view in UNSW galleries
Holy nation, scared nation, indoctrination
Photo: Jacquie Manning

“Do you know how Tanya Plibersek called Peter Dutton Voldemort?” he says. “The real Voldemort is Rupert Murdoch. He who cannot be named – if you cannot be named, you cannot be responsible for the origin of the damage you have caused through your propaganda.”

Hookey was born in Cloncurry in 1961 to a single Waanyi mother, Rose, who also had Chinese and Javanese ancestry, and was raised from the age of two by his aunt Flo. Both women have since passed away. His childhood was happy, if impoverished, growing up in tin shacks and tents in a fringe camp on the hillside of Coppermine Creek, in northwest Queensland.

Gasp titled Hoogah Boogah on display in UNSW galleries
Hoogah Boogah, 2005. Photo: Jacquie Manning

“The bush, the brooks, the spinifex, that was my playground,” Hookey recalls, sitting in the gallery of the University of New South Wales’ School of Art and Design in Paddington, where he studied in the 1980s has, and where A MURRIALITY has just opened. “We had ultimate freedom.”

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Several uncles, many of them cattlemen who brought back stories of their travels, were his father figures: he remembers his uncle “Chonk”, Johnny Samarden, who gathered the children and drew figures in the dirt, Hookey and his cousins ​​as superheroes in his stories. In these stories, the kids had M16s slung over their shoulders and were dodging mortar shrapnel; these yarns were spun from the Vietnam War bulletins broadcast constantly on the radio that was always on.

Does he know anything about his father? “I know his name, but my mother said not to contact him, simply because she was afraid of me getting hurt … because he was a white man with a family and of course – maybe – he only has mother for that used one night.”

Gasping titled Aboriginality victorious on view in UNSW Galleries
Aboriginality Triumphant, 2008. Photo: Jacquie Manning

When I ask Hookey about the Albanian government’s commitment to a referendum for a constitutionally enshrined Indigenous Voice in Parliament, it elicits a deeply personal response about the practical issue of housing.

“I don’t know,” he says. “I’m very skeptical about the government… I just wonder how much say the community has in government policy. As a single father separated from my family, I don’t really have a place for my boys to come and live with me because I can’t find a place on the rental market.” Hookey blames the investment market: “The majority of people in parliament have investment property. There is no way they are going to change it because of their own interests.”

    Gasp titled A Dot Painting on exhibition
A spot painting, 2022. Photo: Jacquie Manning

By day, Hookey continues to paint in a studio shared with other artists in a former paint factory in Yeronga, south of Brisbane. But later in our interview, Hookey confides in a low voice: “I’m struggling. I’m in the studios, I’m on floors, I’m on couches. I even slept in cars.”

Hookey at work in the studio
‘I’m Struggling’ … Hookey at work in the studio. Photo: Rhett Hammerton/UNSW

Still, his work continues apace. It includes different versions of a mural, MURRILAND!, the first of which was installed at the UNSW gallery. Hookey was inspired by a series of small paintings by the late Congolese artist Tshibumba Kanda Matulu that chronicled the brutal colonial history of the Congo under Belgium’s King Leopold II. Hookey’s version is a large mural populated by non-chronological scenes in the history of Indigenous Australians: such as 1606, when members of Dutch explorer Willem Janszoon’s crew were attacked by the Wik people on the west coast of Cape York.

It was more than a century and a half before James Cook claimed Australia for Britain, Hookey points out. The Dutch “were scared shitless, they struggled, they put their fucking tails behind their legs and they took off.”

“Australia has a fucking day where we stop for a horse race, right?” he says. “This is an incident we should celebrate – how a First Nations nation ousted a superpower that day.”

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