Indigenous photographic series explores identity and displacement at Midsumma

By Christopher Ringrose

Michael Cook: Australian Landscapes | La Trobe University Museum of Art

In the cool space of the LUMA Gallery on LaTrobe University’s Bundoora campus, the rich colours of indigenous photographer Michael Cook’s 10 large inkjet photographic images burn and glow against the white walls.

Cook has created 10 glorious portraits of Aboriginal persons in drag and placed them – half seamlessly, half with deliberately signalled artifice – within the spaces of his own photographs of the Australian landscape. Cook’s brilliantly coloured images confront our conceptions of authenticity and indigeneity. His flamboyantly dressed figures enjoy their sexuality and identity in the very same settings where, as Cook says in his exhibition, “most people think about an Aboriginal person being”.

The deal works two ways: first, these are Aboriginal people, but not as most Australians tend to imagine them; second, the landscape is owned by them in ways that could seem sacrilegious or satirical, but instead assert the politics of difference and defiance.

The landscapes themselves are full of interest. In ‘Australian Landscape #4’, a beautiful Aboriginal person in drag (donning a jewelled top) reclines in a pockmarked white enamel bathtub among a sea of yellow wildflowers as vivid as the clothes. Tracks lead off into the distance, seemingly to nowhere in particular. Cook’s image artfully juxtaposes the natural and the artificial – or to be more precise, it interrogates those categories. The colours of nature are vibrant and enhanced. The self-possessed model acts as though it were the most natural thing in the world to lie in a bath in the outback. The black feathers draped across the model’s ankle could be a manmade garment, or could be from a recently deceased crow.

Urban coalesces with rural in almost every picture. In ‘Australian Landscape #5’, a contemporary figure lies back akin to John Everett Millais’ Ophelia in a stream of white and yellow wildflowers. In #3, the model walks across pale, almost white, undulating desert sands in a costume playfully reminiscent of Lawrence of Arabia – while wearing decorative platform shoes.

“Like the other photographs, this one seems to be asking the question: ‘Does this figure belong here – in this piece of Australia? And if you think not, why not?'”

The colour palette utilised by Cook both connects and contrasts the landscapes and humans that inhabit them. In #7, layers of red and purple soil and sky are cut across by a figure in floating nightwear – itself paralleled by the stark, abandoned windmills (the only other vertical elements in the composition). In #8, the model floats languorously on what used to be called a lilo, upon the surface of an outback pool that Jenny Agutter and David Gulpilil might have dived into in Walkabout; the striated rocks reflecting the figure’s clothing.

If one examines the paintings in the suggested direction, one will come to a final pair of pictures (#1 and #6), in which aboriginal models practising drag lie upon desert sands of a startling orange hue. #1 is particularly striking, rendering the elements of Cook’s collection in its simplest and most allusive form. The purple stripes on the stockings worn by the model are partly echoed in the level blue horizon. The rippled sand itself is rich and unforgiving in the implied heat.

Here, as in the other photographs, the 150cm-wide image effectively spreads our attention between background and foreground. What is the human figure doing? With a smooth, half-naked torso exposed, the model seems to be performing a parody of sunbathing. Or maybe, with its prone figure in the foreground, the picture carries an echo of Andrew Wyeth’s ‘Christina’s World’, where Christina’s figure is close to home yet far away from it. Like the other photographs, this one seems to be asking the question: “Does this figure belong here – in this piece of Australia? And if you think not, why not?”

Technically assured, populist but challenging, playful and serious, Michael Cook’s exhibition, showing in Melbourne as part of the Midsumma Gay and Lesbian Festival, deserves an extensive audience.

Michael Cook: Australian Landscapes is free admission and showing as part of the Midsumma Festival until 13 February 2015. For more information about the exhibition, please visit the LUMA website.

Image courtesy of the artist and Andrew Baker Art Dealer, Queensland.