Brook Andrew: Seeing Black
Alex Gawronksi
Brook Andrew

Brook Andrew, Sexy and
duratran on
perspex, dim. var., 1996

The essential problem posed by Brook Andrew's work is identity and it's associated myths. Of course his dealings with myth are grounded in personal history, but as a gay, Wiradjuri man, he manages to elude any narrowly prescriptive readings of his work. This is achieved by multiple layering of culturally encoded meanings and presenting political questions in a slippery format often reminiscent of contemporary advertising. Through these devices, Andrew addresses the mechanisms of representation and suggests further representational possibilities. The notion of ever locating essential truths about either Aboriginality or what it is to be a gay white/black male are undermined by an openness and potential for hybridisation. This is why his work refuses declamation, preferring irony and ambivalence in a logic where appearance is a primary indicator of identity. And this is also why Andrew’s work reflects a notion of power (or empowerment) against a conventional paradigm that casts racial and sexuality others as minorities.

How these issues unravel in Andrew's work can be seen in a 1997 Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras exhibition Blak Babez and Kweer Katz at Sydney's Gitte Wiese Gallery. Andrew installed a moving neon boomerang on the exterior wall of the gallery overlooking Oxford Street. Using neon and the gallery facade, the work obviously deployed the technology of consumerism and tourism. Indeed, the appearance and disappearance of the boomerang mapped a trajectory of how this traditional weapon has, in mainstream culture, been reduced to obedient silence as an endlessly compliant signifier of Australiana. While playing within this regime, Andrew’s also insists that the boomerang has a singular quality as an empowering symbol. It can, in fact, be redeployed - to place in critical relief dominant notions of white history. While the boomerang may appear possessable from the vantage point of consumption, it also promises to continually lay bare - like a scythe - the grounds for a reconsideration of Nationhood. The boomerang literally has a double edge, qualities that act as a metaphor for re-thinking and critiquing whiteness.

The title of an accompanying essay for this show, "A Blak Dik" by Murray Chapple, moved these questions of race into the crucial question of sexuality. Firstly, the spelling of blak is a form of language reclamation, acting as a provocation against predominant white gallery going culture. But its affect is also disarming, satirising as it does, the many instances of naive and patronising representations of Aboriginal people in Australian culture. Similarly direct references to gay issues are pilloried as the plethora of penises that usually appear in galleries at the time of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras are revealed as representative of an almost exclusively Anglocentric subculture. By blurring blackness and queerness notions of desire are shown to be equally political questions. The blak dik in question refers then to a defiantly and intentionally hermetic gay male minority, coined in a language that transforms the phallus into an exclamation mark of protest.

Duality is thus indispensable to Andrew's work. In many works he adapts perennially occurring Western motifs of doppelgangers and doubles. In I Split Your Gaze, the process of mirroring is explicit. Here an ethnographic portrait of an Aboriginal man called Cunningham from Armidale, pilfered from the early photographers Kerry and King archive, has been split in two and re-arranged to make explicit the original dehumanising cultural logic of observation and surveillance. Neither part of the portrait is whole and in being simultaneously halved and doubled the viewer is forced to stare blankly through the image. Here, identity as such becomes mutability through repetition. We see the past/passed without seeing. As divided subjects we necessarily recognise ourselves in others except that in this instance the other is apparently the same. The gaze and its doubling effect was also deployed in Ngajuu Ngaay Nginduugirr where an enlarged pair of obviously Aboriginal eyes looked from behind a flashing neon text "Ngajuu Ngaay Nginduugirr". In this way language blinds us to the wholeness of comprehension but ironically the phrase which translates as "I See You" hides its other in our inability to comprehend the meaning. Insistently curious, this signalled refusal becomes for us at the same time a question ownership and our right to scrutinise.

Andrew’s use of Wiradjuri language in works like Ngajuu Ngaay Nginduugirr illuminates the gulf surrounding contemporary understanding of indigenous issues. It is important for Andrew that Wiradjuri is not understood only as a political or cultural oddity or really as an appeal to an old and strange language. Andrew uses Wiradjui, along with several other indigenous languages in everyday contexts. He speaks them in the same way he speaks English. For him, they are quotidian lexicons and not the stuff of museum culture. In deploying these everyday languages in an exhibition context however, he makes manifest how a dominant language can but fails to exclude all others. There’s a sense of irony in this strategy since Andrew’s use of Wiradjuri in a gallery context is obviously elitist as it excludes the average (not only white) gallery goer from the immediate literal comprehension. But this is not simply a reversal of the power relationships given in language but an opening of an indeterminate space in which the divisibility and commodification of western modes of representation are compared to a silenced language. Representing this language in neon lends it an artificial aura. It is the same aura that shrouds advertising in promise whilst similarly making a commodity of otherness. Ultimately the artist stresses the identity of others as a question that does and will not disappear.

In Contention, a series of 7 digital images, 4 of which were exhibited at the Contemporary Art Centre of South Australia, Showtime depicted a raised US flag against a mirror image of our own. On one panel, an image of media icon, Monica Lewinsky, peers coyly from in front of the star spangled banner as it unfurls majestically behind her. Superimposed over the flag is the word "showtime". To the left before a backdrop bearing the Aboriginal colours of black, red and yellow, an anonymous Aboriginal face glances toward the West. Beneath this face is the word "revolution". In many respects Lewinsky is the invisible woman since the dissemination of her image and its subsequent dissimulation dissolves any questions of her identity as an individual. Indeed she is not so much an individual as she has become the representative of the banality of scandal and middle class American values. Ironically, this has occurred through the over inflation of her relationship with that ultimate figure of white Western power, the President of the United States. Similarly we identify the Aboriginal subject as a traditional victim, this time of colonial domination. In a superficial sense the power relations these images reveal are the same. But in her notoriety as a celebrity, Lewinsky achieves a cult status that is over-valued. On the other hand the image of the Aboriginal is lacerated with questions concerning racial and social justice. The image is available to us through its sheer capacity for meaningless repetition and as consumers we own both images. The slogans in each work testify likewise to their sameness as well as their emptiness as signifiers. Revolution (like scandal) is a spectacle for which we always wait.

This sense of arbitrariness propels other works like Sexy and Dangerous. In this work an Aboriginal man, probably from Queensland, is depicted naked from the waist up and a text in Mandarin and English emblazoned over his bare chest. The cultural disjunction causes the image and the figure to open up to a broader pool of ideas and popular images, refusing any claim to authenticity. In this instance, awareness of the meaning of the Mandarin text is allusive. This work bears an uncanny resemblance to Duchamp's bearded Mona Lisa, enigmatically re-titled, L.H.O.O.Q. or "She's Got a Hot Ass". In Duchamp's picture the illusion of the famous painting is dispelled through a crude reversal as she becomes he. He is the purportedly homosexual artist, Leonardo, projecting an idealised figure of a desired female, who bears a resemblance to the artist himself. Thus the artist desires the splitting of his identity as a means of obscuring his sexual inclinations and equally as a way of attaining his ideal self. For Duchamp another reversal is set in play. By invoking Rrose Selavy, Duchamp's feminine alter ego is masculinised and the artist is once again allowed to become him-self through a process of disintegration. In Andrew's picture, desire is veiled in the accoutrements of an-other text (which translates loosely as "shifty feminine"), whilst the cross-eyed subject depicted disappears in a process of self-absorption and alienation. What both Duchamp's and Andrew's pictures illustrate is the instability of identity and its constant capacity for slippage. In both works the purpose of art is the symbolic attainment of identity through eschewing the culturally engendered object of desire.

Notions of an escape from the self and from dominant modes of mediated representation inform Bungal gara gara ("All Over the Place") exhibited in this year's Moet and Chandon. Andrew re-deployed an image that depicted the rear of the infamous royal crash car in which Princess Dianna and Dodi al-Fayhed met their deaths. The pure redness at the left hand of the picture presents a sanitized version of the crash's end result. Cleaned up like the site of impact, the picture is both anonymous and a fetishised commodity. The process of universal mourning becomes a rite where the demise of anonymous celebrity and the passing of anonymous sovereign traditions are grieved. The car functions like a metaphor. It not only represents the way capitalist media disrespects the dead, but analogously, how the media dehumanises racial issues. The media refracts cultural specificity, empties it out. Politically the media in the West is "all over the place" because real issues are unable to be pinned down. In the West, meaning is everywhere and nowhere. The mourning of indigenous tragedies cannot aspire to the importance accorded these images by the West. Similarly neither can they, nor should they expect to achieve a universal application. Indigenous culture remains locked out of the images it collides with. Within the picture itself cultural collisions and conspiracies of racial intolerance posed by al-Fayhed's Arab heritage, remain securely locked within the speeding car halted and turned into a tomb. The entombment of otherness becomes the only way to silence the true problems of the West.

Andrew's work is marked by various interpretive levels. On the one hand this suggests a non-hierarchical consideration of the politics of identity, race and sexuality. On the other, however complexities and ambiguities threaten to be absorbed entirely by the hierarchies his work criticises. In many respects the interest of Andrew's work lies in what it reveals of the discourses of otherness posed by a current political ambivalence. Of course mere didacticism is doomed to silence as current world relations have been emptied of their reliance upon notions of truth or authenticity. Neither should the question be one of reinstating the privileged aura of the past but of empowering what seem minor cultures and knowledges. The imagery Andrew draws from is essentially westernized and his work remains securely within Western traditions. However the artists incorporation of Wiradjuri texts provides his work with personal as well as a national cultural significance that still retains its disruptive potential.

Alex Gawronski

the artist &
Courtesy of the artist.

  Brook Andrew

Brook Andrew, NGAJUU NGAAY
NGINDUUGIRR, diptich, blue
neon light text, 20 x 465
cm & duratran on perspex,
200 x 100 cm, 1998

Brook Andrew

Brook Andrew

Brook Andrew, Dazzle
my soul/image is
everything/Lust is
5 pink
neon boomergangs,
61 x 25 cm, 1998

  Brook Andrew

Brook Andrew, bungal-gara
, 3/7 contention s
eries, cibachrome digital
image on perspex,
300 x 77 cm, 1998


Brook Andrew

Brook Andrew, I SPLIT
image, dimensions
variable, 1997

  Brook Andrew

Brook Andrew, Showtime,
1/7 contention series,
screen print on
100% rag,
300 x 77 cm, 1999