When Brook Andrew was about eight years old, he was “booted out” of Sunday School for telling the priest that Moses turning a staff into a snake was “not possible”. At about 13 years of age, he was told by his biology teacher that all Aboriginal people have swirls on their thumbs, and that there were only a few surviving, in the central desert.
“From a very young age I was skeptical of the world that was given to me,” says the artist, standing at Tolarno galleries in Melbourne CBD, in front of a new work called ‘The Monthly VI’. An assemblage that mashes up Japanese newspaper and a late-18th-century engraving titled ‘White Negro’ with spray-painted graffiti, it’s part of his solo show Spin, a few days from opening when we speak. Five minutes’ walk away, at the Ian Potter Centre at Federation Square, Andrew’s career survey The Right to Offend Is Sacred is holding court. “It’s kind of like unleashing my deep psyche, I think,” he says looking at the canvas in front of him.
Much of Andrew’s work combines archival materials, text and a graphic sensibility to present alternative narratives and histories. His NGV exhibition is titled after just such a work: a 2009 collage that he made during a residency in New York, in which the headline ‘The Right to Offend Is Sacred’ is superimposed on an old black and white photo of a lavish interior – the kind you might find in an interior design journal.
The work, Andrew explains, was made in response to an editorial in the February 23 edition of the New York Times, about a controversial cartoon that had run in The New York Post, depicting a chimpanzee being shot. As civil rights activist Al Sharpton rallied protests over the cartoon’s racist politics, the Times journalist invoked the First Amendment right to free speech. (Ring any bells?)
“I’m very interested in the multiple meanings [of headlines],” says Andrew. “What does ‘The right to offend is sacred’ mean? What side of the fence are you on? When can you cross that line?”
Although some have speculated about it, Andrew didn’t choose the title of his NGV show to invoke the recent debate over 18C. “I chose it because I feel very passionate about certain themes in my work, and I feel we all do – but we don’t talk about them openly. And I think we need that discourse. For example, Israel and Palestine. West Papua, and the Indonesians slaughtering all those Papuan people. And in Australia, how we treat asylum seekers. For a privileged society, I don’t necessarily think [Australia] is the best society; I think that’s the illusion.”
Accordingly, The Right to Offend Is Sacred is an exhibition with a global outlook. Collage works tease out alternative narratives for the Israel/Palestine conflict, lynchings in 1950s America, and the European colonial project from the Enlightenment era onwards. One of the show’s central works, the installation ‘52 Portraits’, flanks the viewer with enlarged prints of early ethnographic portraits from around the world. Overlooking this, the 2014 video work ‘De Anima’ is an incitement to a revised, holistic worldview, intercutting staged scenes (featuring performances by queer artists Mamo Alto and Justin Shoulder) with historical footage that ranges from 1960s American porn to war footage, anti-Japanese propaganda, and safari scenes – all from Andrew’s own extensive archive.
Andrew’s archive and his interest in ‘hidden histories’ have gone hand in hand, and began at an early age. He grew up in a household with lots of Aboriginal kitsch objects (“because that’s one of the ways my Aboriginal family identified with themselves, in the suburbs”), and he started by collecting these, before expanding to memorabilia, documents and newspapers, and Enlightenment-era art.
“I was hoarding, I suppose, and trying to filter through what information these objects and papers and etchings were trying to tell the world. Then I started juxtaposing them, to tease out other narratives and other histories. And so even today, I’m very playful about it. But also I’m very serious about it – because I think we deserve to know other narratives, and we deserve to feed our own historical narratives of our families – that are often hidden or invisible or oppressed – into this greater narrative.
“I’m a very optimistic person in general,” says Andrew. “But I’m also very suspicious or skeptical.” He laughs: “The jury is out.”