A MURRIALITY by Gordon Hookey

‘A MURRIALITY’ is Brisbane-based Waanyi artist and activist Gordon Hookey’s first survey exhibition marking over three decades of his artistic practice. Staged throughout the entire ground floor spaces at UNSW Galleries in Sydney until 2 October, ‘A MURRIALITY’ brings together a powerful and witty compilation of works inspired by the lived experiences and perspective of a Murri man who playfully lampoons Australia’s colonial history, culture and politics with an uncensored satirical sting.

Murriland! #1, 2015-2017, oil on canvas, 2100 x 1000cm. Courtesy the artist and UNSW Galleries, Sydney

Sculpture, printworks, large-scale paintings, eight newly commissioned protest banners, and an earlier series of banners used in Invasion Day rallies and marches explore issues of racism, legal injustices, land rights, the environment, cultural representation, language, international conflict and other significant socio-political issues in Australia, and around the world. And in the face of such adversity there is determination for a more just and empowered future for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Peoples.

Born in Cloncurry Queensland, Hookey began creating at a young age and to him it was ‘playing’, a sentiment that has stayed with the artist on his journey through his career in art. For the past 40 years, Hookey has collected a myriad of posters, flyers, postcards and other ephemera capturing ‘signs of the times’, which has become a library-like source of inspiration and a “conceptual thread” that weaves throughout Hookey’s painting and text-based practice.  

Reiteration in Perpetuity, 2010. © Gordon Allan Hookey/Copyright Agency, 2022. Courtesy the artist, Milani Gallery, Brisbane and UNSW Galleries, Sydney

In a riot of colour and symbolism, characterisations and deliberately miss-spelled texts and word play, Hookey rips into the wrongs of Australia’s colonial past and the indelible impact that such abhorrent acts continue to have on the lives of Aboriginal people today. By putting the proverbial shoe on the other foot, Hookey rebels against the oppression of Aboriginal people mocking the ethics and integrity of political leaders in Australia and around the world representing them as grotesque pig-faced caricatures.

In the Gallery foyer, a two-panel painting titled Reiteration in Perpetuity (2010), delivers an unarguable truth. The messengers, two larger than life kangaroos each bearing the fist of solidarity, transfix the viewer from behind sunglasses tinted with the Aboriginal flag. One points the finger directly at onlookers, while the other ratifies the declaration with a poignant thumbs up. “THIS HERE, SO CALLED LAND,… ‘australia’ IS ABORIGINELAND.” “IT ALWAYS WAS AND ALWAYS WILL BE ABORIGINELAND OK!”

Moving through the gallery we get a sense of how the past is always present in the future. It can’t be denied. Hookey’s epic history paintings articulate stories and events withheld from mainstream education and the realities of the invasion of Aboriginal land, and the brutality inflicted on Aboriginal people and their culture. Murriland! #1 (2015-17) illustrates a lengthy timeline from Aboriginal Ancestors and the Dreamtime painted in glorious colour and motifs, to the arrival and domination of Europeans and atrocity. “History in Australia is horrific and ugly. I grieve every time I look at something so horrific. I find it hard to represent those realities, and I have dealt with the situation by subverting them,” Hookey says.

Wreckonin, 2007, oil on canvas, 168 x 152cm. Gift of Timothy North and Denise Cuthbert through the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation 2020. Donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program. Courtesy the artist and UNSW Galleries, Sydney

Wreckonin (2007) turns the tables in the courtroom. A white shackled policeman surrounded by a jury of kangaroos, representing Aboriginal people, stands before a judge with the powerful thud of an oversized gavel.

The installation King hit (for Queen and Country) (1999), a punching bag depicting ugly portraiture of former Prime Minister John Howard, One Nation leader Pauline Hanson and former politician and One Nation co-founder David Oldfield, hangs from a rope noose over a pair of boxing gloves painted with the Aboriginal flag. The work represents “Aboriginality fighting against these things we see as subjugating or oppressing us as a people” Hookey says in the exhibition’s wall notes.

Aboriginality victorious (2008), is a vision of Aboriginal empowerment. The protagonist of this work, Fruit Flee, a character inspired by Chinese martial artist and actor Bruce Lee hails victorious in the ring after a knockout round with a swine-faced white bloke wearing gloves made of a studded “WHOLE HE BUY BILL”.

Aboriginality victorious, 2008, installation view UNSW Galleries, Sydney, oil paint, plastic and metal on canvas, paper, metal and metallic and oil paint on boxing gloves. Photograph: Jacquie Manning. Courtesy the artist and UNSW Galleries

There is a lot to take in… and take away from this monumental eye-opening exhibition. Don’t miss it.

Hookey is a graduate of UNSW Art & Design, a member of leading Queensland-based Indigenous arts collective proppaNOW alongside renowned artists Vernon Ah Kee, Tony Albert, Richard Bell, Jennifer Herd, Laurie Nilsen and Megan Cope, and he is also a member of Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Co-operative in Sydney.

‘A MURRIALITY’ is co-curated by José Da Silva, Director UNSW Galleries and Liz Nowell, Director IMA and developed in partnership with the Institute of Modern Art (IMA), Brisbane, where it will be on display from 21 October to 23 December, before touring to Caboolture Regional Gallery, Hervey Bay Regional, Cairns Regional Art Gallery, Cloncurry Shire Dr David Harvey-Sutton Gallery, Bega Regional Gallery, NSW (Sept–Oct 2024), and Perth Institute for Contemporary Arts, WA.

UNSW Galleries is located on the corner of Greens Road and Oxford Street Paddington. The gallery welcomes visitors Wednesday to Friday, 10am-5pm and Saturday and Sunday 12-5pm.