Gordon Hookey’s raucous satire: “I don’t take my art seriously at all” | Art
In Waanyi artist Gordon Hookey’s paintings, armies of tough kangaroos and other native animals, such as opossums, goannas, crocodiles and snakes, represent Australia’s indigenous people. Invasive species such as cane toads and camels, meanwhile, “represent the ugliness of invading people on our lands, our country and our culture.”
The 61-year-old’s art is funnier than it might suggest and surprising in its raucous 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,” invoking the colonial myth that Australia was a preserved land. zero groundor land that does not belong to anyone.
“I don’t take my art seriously at all,” he says. “I have fun with it. I play. I’m silly.
Is anger a factor in his work? “Anger could destroy you from the inside out,” he says. “I feel anger, but it kind of turns into passion. People can interpret passion and intensity of feelings as anger. But when you feel strongly about something, you are able to articulate it in a particular way.
Kind and smiling, often howling with laughter, Hookey is loud-talking – a four-year apprenticeship legacy as an industrial mason since the age of 16, cutting bricks amidst the deafening concentrators and smelters of the Mount Isa mines . Much of his hearing “has degraded over time,” he says, meaning he struggles to hear higher frequencies. When his sons Josh, 11, and Leon, 9, talk to him, he often responds with “yes?
In her first survey of her career, A MURRIALITY, which is currently on view at UNSW Galleries and on a national tour in 2023, Hookey’s concerns have gone global. He fears that Australia will follow the lead of the United States and allow right-wing bigotry to flourish. The survey includes a series of new works designed to look like protest banners; in one, Fox pundit “Tukka Cullsin” and “Don the Con” share a can of Kremlin Condensed KGB Shit, which looks like Campbell’s soup.
“The reason I’m doing all this work on Trump is because it’s so unfair that a bullshit artist is believed by so many people,” Hookey says. To him, Maga means ‘the most horribly gullible Americans’ and the ‘odious things’ they said during Trump’s presidency, he says, changed the way conservative Australian politicians speak.
“Do you know what Tanya Plibersek called Peter Dutton Voldemort? he says. “The real Voldemort is Rupert Murdoch. The one who cannot be named – if you cannot be named, you cannot be responsible for the genesis of the evil you have done through your propaganda.
Born in 1961 in Cloncurry to single Waanyi mother Rose, who also had Chinese and Javanese ancestry, Hookey was raised by his aunt Flo from the age of two. Both women have since died. Her childhood was happy, if poor, growing up in humps and corrugated iron tents in a marginal camp on the hillside of Coppermine Creek in northwest Queensland.
“The bush, the creeks, the spinifex, it was my playground,” recalls Hookey, sitting in the gallery at the University of New South Wales School of Art and Design in Paddington, where he studied in the 1980s, and where A MURRIALITY has just opened. “We had the ultimate freedom.”
Various uncles, many of whom were ranchers who brought back stories from their travels, were his father figures: he remembers his “Chonk” uncle, Johnny Samarden, rounding up the children and drawing figures in the dirt, making Hookey and his superhero cousins in his stories. In these tales, children slung M16s and dodged mortar shrapnel; these threads were drawn from the constantly broadcast Vietnam War bulletins on the always-on radio.
Does he know anything about his father? “I know his name, but my mum said not to contact him, just because she was afraid I would be hurt…because he was a white man with a family and obviously – maybe – he was just using mum for that night.”
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 on the practical issue of housing.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I’m very skeptical of government… I just wonder what influence the community has on government policy. As a single father separated from my family, I don’t really have room for my little 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 parliamentarians have investment properties. There’s no way they’re changing that because of their own interests.
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 having a hard time. I’m in studios, I’m on the floor, I’m on sofas. I even slept in cars.
Yet his work continues apace. This 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 Congo’s brutal colonial history under Belgium’s King Leopold II. Hookey’s version is a large mural populated by non-chronological scenes from Indigenous Australian history: such as 1606, when 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 fucking scared, they spat, they put their fucking tail behind their leg and they left.”
“Australia has a fucking day where we stop for a horse race, right?” he says. “It’s an incident we should celebrate – how a First Nations nation drove out a superpower that day.”