Michael Cook employs role reversal to challenge who belongs where

By Christopher Ringrose

Michael Cook: Object | dianne tanzer gallery

The work of Michael Cook, one of Australia’s most innovative photographic media artists, has consistently concerned itself with human rights and the politics of race and ethnicity. His work represents a dialogue between his Bidjara heritage, Indigenous history, contemporary culture and the history of art and images. His latest exhibition, Object, moves into a wider arena to investigate the world of slavery and objectification.

For those who admired the vibrant colours and provocative contrasts of his exhibition Australian Landscapes, seen at the La Trobe University Museum of Art in January–February 2015, this large five-section almost (but not quite) monochrome tableau may come as something of a surprise. As with Australian Landscapes, the theme is black and white, indigenous and European, but here the tones are more muted.

Australian Landscapes challenged the viewer’s sense of who belongs where, by placing Aboriginal people in drag within the outback, and Object does something similar. The role-reversal move is not a particularly subtle one. Cook has photographed black people dressed in western/European period costume against Regency-style interiors of cornices, friezes and paintings, and juxtaposed these images with white, nude women in a variety of degrading and objectified postures. One woman, for example, stands patiently, with a lampshade covering her head, as a living standard lamp.

Another female figure acts as the support for a table, and a third doubles as a vase, her face obscured by a flower arrangement. In Footstool, an elegantly attired black man rests his legs on a naked female; in Ashtray he taps his cigar into an ashtray atop an abject but classical female nude. Each image challenges notions of civilisation and barbarism, and offers a provocative series of reversals: nude/clothed; black/white; servant/mistress; animate/inanimate; slave/master; luxury/bare necessities; elegance/awkwardness.

“The images may initially provoke, but their details can be seen to explore further aspects of representation, power relations and justice.”

A viewer moving along the confronting tableau might feel that they have gotten the gist of the exhibition’s primary message after image one. Each white nude has a “for sale” tag attached, linking the furniture saleroom where they might have been purchased to the slave block where countless Africans and others were offered up for sale. The fact that the elegantly-attired black figures look leisured, disdainful, and slightly bored cannot disguise the submerged violence and rage within class and race relations, then and now.

However, it is worth spending time with Object, and persevering with Michael Cook’s tableau. The images may initially provoke, but their details can be seen to explore further aspects of representation, power relations and justice. Like David Dabydeen’s book Hogarth’s Blacks and Norma Broude’s feminist study of the Impressionists before it, Object makes us think about art and power, in an economical and darkly clever fashion. The images’ angry gestures modulate into mini essays on the history of art.

The disturbing representations of nude women among well-dressed men echo the incongruities of Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe, and the naked woman supporting a table calls to mind Allen Jones’s realistic, sexualised nude sculptures, so controversial forty years ago (Cook’s subtitles even recall Jones’s titles, such as Hatstand, Table and Chair).

On closer inspection, the paintings on the walls of Cook’s pictures turn out to be portraits of Sarah Forbes Bonetta, an African slave gifted to Queen Victoria, and Dido Elizabeth Belle, born to a West Indian slave mother and a English naval officer in the 18th century, and recently depicted in the feature film Belle.

Thus Cook’s work weaves a web of potent images beneath its stark role-reversals. A crucifixion scene on the wall in Footstool features an iconic male nude; it could refer to the role of evangelical Christians in helping to repeal the British slave trade, or it could be an ironic comment on the existence of slavery within a “Christian culture”.

The aristocrats’ whippet, which appears in a number of the Cook’s panels, is also used to question categories. Pampered, allowed to stand on the tea table, bedecked with a necklace, sniffing incuriously at the nude “objects”, its status as a possession and as a living creature seems higher than that of the slaves. Like the dogs in Thomas Gainsborough’s paintings Morning Walk (1785) and John Plampin (1752), the whippet enjoys a basic courtesy that is denied to humans of lower social class.

It is this combination of angry, overt role-reversal and more enigmatic images that makes Object a fascinating social and historical commentary.

Caption: Michael Cook and THIS IS NO FANTASY + dianne tanzer gallery