Wednesday, July 27, 2011


Brook Andrew’s exhibition Paradise stings of sharp irony from the outset. The work is based around a collection of rare postcards from the past century of indigenous people from a range of countries including Australia. We send postcards when we are on holiday; send them back home to report on the weather, the sights and the curiosities we have found. In these postcards, the indigenous people are objectified as sights seen. In these works, with coloured neon lights behind or around them, there is the sense that the people in these images have been sold - like for a circus or freak show—for a cheap price, for a cheap laugh. They are fetishised, ridiculed and humiliated through the colonial tourist’s gaze. 

The first work we see Union Jack is a black and white postcard of young people performing what seems a traditional ritual—adorned with ceremonial body paint. When we look closer we see the body paint is a Union Jack. A white man in a dark suit is watching the performance. The mark of his gaze is unmistakably represented by that imperial emblem. This white man feels present in all these works, watching, appreciating, overseeing; his mark somehow left on the bodies of all the subjects of Andrew’s work. Many of the artworks are framed in thick sapele wood frames. The oversized frames contrast with the small postcards. This proportional association asks the question: what else has been used up and taken from the lands of the subjects of these photographs?

In the same titled Paradise series, each postcard of an indigenous person is juxtaposed with a postcard of industry. A young girl with bared chest is side by side with a postcard of a big log on a truck, displayed vertically. A man whose bare back and profile is the focus—titled on the postcard “A Warrior”—is displayed with the truck horizontal. There is a sense of the man, like the forest, being cut-down. An older aboriginal woman smoking a pipe is beside a factory chimney. The colour images of industry, along with the rainbow coloured neon borders around each of the frames reminds us of ongoing colonial attitudes. The overt nature of the contrast between postcards makes the viewer also question the moral self-satisfaction that may come from critically judging the postcards of the past while still enjoying the land and resources of the present.

In an ABC interview covering the protests in the Kimberley last week, the Goolarabooloo Jabbir-Jabbir women wept as trucks and bulldozers rumbled into a sacred site at James Price Point. They compared the act to desecrating a European church or cemetery. Andrew’s work asks the same questions as these distraught women “what have we got anymore to have rights over?”. We imagine the humiliated subjects of these postcards “feel the pain of those big things rolling on our country”. This is particularly evident in the artwork, The Flow Chart, which links together various framed postcards by neon tubed triangles. At one point, there is a postcard of industry, another, a harmonious depiction of indigenous people on the water. One image is of an indigenous woman profoundly scarred on her face and another, right down at the lowest point, an adult indigenous man in a studio has been dressed up like a baby girl. We imagine a flow chart (a tool of industry and logic) would perhaps show a logic or order to events. However this flow chart maps a neon profit at the expense of all else; including the dignity and rights of other human beings who have been abused and exploited in the name of European profit and expanse. 

This exhibition creates an awareness of an objectification and discreditation of indigenous people that has made the lives of non-indigenous people easier. In the work Memorial 4, Andrew creates a black lacquered box that we peer into to see a jumble of neon words that seem to go on infinitely. In Wiradjuri it reads ‘I see you’. In these postcards we understand the colonial gaze as having seen, bought, sold and sent home the image of these indigenous people. However, the message from the box, which cannot be as easily seen or understood, is that these viewers can be viewed.

We have a sense of a meta-experience of seeing and being seen in this gallery. Any contemporary moral righteousness with which we may initially view the images of the past seems also to be “seen” and makes us aware of the duplicity of believing these attitudes towards indigenous people exist only in history. Andrew brings these postcards back into a public consciousness. By bringing them back to the surface, Andrew makes us confront the repetitious exploitation of indigenous people. 

All images are courtesy of Tolarno Galleries Melbourne

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