Fort Gansevoort Gallery will open its doors to Sacred Nation, Scared Nation, the first solo exhibition in the United States for noted Brisbane-based Waanyi Aboriginal artist Gordon Hookey (b. 1961, Cloncurry, Australia). Hookey uses metaphors, wordplay, and humor – sometimes brazenly provocative – to subvert tropes of English colonialization and to reclaim, empower, and redefine Aboriginal culture. Eschewing the traditional dot abstraction most commonly associated with indigenous Australian art, Hookey deploys deceptively folksy figuration and bold painted words in paintings that connect Black Aboriginal experience to that of African Americans.
Language is intrinsic to Hookey’s work. Considering English his second language despite not knowing his first, Hookey addresses the forced extinction of most Aboriginal tongues through his manipulation of text. Painted directly onto the canvas, his often crude wordplay cleverly undermines and challenges English as the perceived superior language, suggesting a reversal of power. In the paintings ’Arsonist’ (2003) and ’Arse-on-us’ (2003), for example, Hookey criticizes members of the media who, by inaccurately blaming adolescents for starting widespread bushfires in the early 2000’s, inspired children to subsequently commit arson. In depicting the media as, literally, “arses” holding matches, the artist wittily raises the question of culpability in relation to environmental destruction, while toying with notions of propaganda.
Hookey points fingers. In ‘The re re rediscovery of Aotearoa’, he imagines American discovering New Zealand. Depicting the heads American cowboy colonizers as cans of baked beans, and a herd of Zebras shaped like the letter Z, Hookey suggests the ignorance of settlers who idealize already inhabited lands as empty expanses ‘AT ALPHABET’S END WHERE WILD ZEE ROAM’. The almighty American dollar flexes at the sight.
Among the dozen paintings on view in Sacred Nation, Scared Nation, ‘Elvis’ illustrates the artist’s penchant for excavating Western influence as it infiltrates and undermines original cultures. Emblazoned with ‘PRESLEYS PREPLANNED PRIORITY: PROTECT PRIVILEGED PRECIOUS PROPERTIES PROMPTLY,’ this work refers to a 2001 incident involving an Erickson S-64F Air-Crane helicopter nicknamed Elvis for the time it had spent in the service of the United States National Guard in Memphis, Tennessee, home of internationally renowned ‘King of Rock and Roll’ Elvis Presley. The helicopter played a controversial role in fighting wildfires in the Australian bush. Hookey’s painting speaks to its use to prioritize extinguishing small fires in affluent communities while underprivileged areas were devastated by larger conflagrations. Here, the anthropomorphized man-machine wears a white suit, the signature garment of an American entertainer whose global stardom and wealth were achieved via appropriation of the sounds and styles of African Americans. This superstar’s outfit is embellished with Australian seven-pointed stars — dots that connect two global territories to a shared history of colonialism. The words “FIRE DON’T DISCRIMATE PEOPLE DO” point to the relationship between privilege and ethics, in regard to both human and natural ecologies.
Gordon Hookey: Sacred Nation, Scared Nation will be on view from March 26 through May 9, 2020 at Fort Gansevoort Gallery, 5 Ninth Avenue in the historic Meatpacking District, NYC.