Colonialism was all about genocide, crimes against humankind, destruction, and basically everything negative that we can imagine about human essence. And Australia lived it for a long time – and is, sadly, still experiencing discrimination towards Aboriginal cultures, traditions and people. Thankfully, Brook Andrew fights to cast a light over ignorance’s shadow through his multidisciplinary and deep artworks and exhibitions.
By using documents, photographs, installations, poems, paintings, collages– and, actually, anything that comes handy – to depict how Aboriginal families in Australia have been misplaced, misunderstood and mistreated, the Sidney-born artist should be a referent to anyone who claims to fight for justice. With very complex works that can be read through multiple layers, he aims to undo and remake the world we live in or, at least, the conception we have about it. Because dominant cultures are in a privilege position because they oppress, repress, disparage and make invisible the ones they think are inferior. We had the chance to talk to him and discover more about his very politically-engaged work, and we are fascinated by everything he’s got to say. 
1 Brook Andrew 2009 Theme Park 1.jpg
How would you introduce yourself in five words?
Inter-explorer iconoclast interdisciplinary subject.
Where did you grow up? And how did art get into your life?
I was born in Sydney and moved to the Western suburbs of the city when I was two years old. This is where a lot of poor or ethnic and Aboriginal families were being moved by the government – out of the city area. We lived in the same house for sixteen years and I was quite bored. The Hawkesbury River was an important aspect of this child hood, as well as the red-black cockatoo’s that nested in the area until the suburbs took over and the old trees were cut down. The backdrop of the Blue Mountains was sublime though, but school was a drag. I escaped to the art classroom for salvation and escape. Art was a last resort after starting to study Marine Biology, Interior Design, Mathematics – and then Visual Arts. I think I was an artist all along, playing with the depths of creativity.
Your website describes you as an “interdisciplinary artist documenting narratives relating to colonialism and modernist histories”. What artistic discipline did you first discover? How was the process of discovering other ways of expression?
I was originally a drawer. I still consider myself one in unison with being a poet; I write poems and draw, and these drawings and poetry and prose end up being realised into installation and research projects. Artworks themselves are little experiments that often include collage and paint or drawing and other interconnected mediums like archives and paper.
3 Brook Andrew 2010 Jumping Castle War Memorial.jpg
How have you been handling these different forms of art since your beginnings? 
I really enjoy the fluidity of mediums, moving from one to the other effortlessly, but with collaboration. I’m curious about how mediums explore different aspects of an idea and an end result. It’s this fluidity that allows for flexibility and experimentation.
Otherwise, when and why did you get interested in colonialism and modernist histories? What does it represent for you? And why do you consider that it is something people need to hear about/see nowadays?
I have always been interested in colonialism, I just didn’t know what it was called when I was a child in a working-class family. We had food and family and that was powerful enough, but I was curious about why the representation of my mother’s Aboriginal Wiradjuri family was not part of a dominant or even partially visible Australian culture. It wasn’t until I went to study with other Aboriginal people and also at art school that I realised the terminology of how we were positioned in the dominant eye. I express my own understanding and exploration of the world, undoing and remaking it.
According to you, what is people’s reaction when seeing your art? And what reaction do you expect from them?
I see that it’s curious for people, and for some it’s a relief and enlightened, a voice for them. For some it’s a hindrance and a reminder of the imbalance of power and maybe how they see themselves fit into my own view of the world order. And for some it is shocking to see visibility in a different way than socially prescribed and accepted.
16 Brook Andrew 2017 the Right to Offend Is Sacred 3.jpg
How would you describe your researching and reflection process while taking over a new project? How do you decide what form of art is going to represent the best what you would like to convey?
The research is a process, an unpacking, unveiling, and experimental process that is not always a straight forward outcome. I enjoy this process and am not too attached to it if it doesn’t work. Life is fallible. People stereotype and try to fit their/our own world view/order; it’s this human aspect that I am curious about, undoing it, reflecting it, experimenting with it. I really don’t know what kind of art comes from a project.
For example, the current project at the Van Abbemuseum in Holland was always reflecting on their larger program called Deviant Practices, but the end result – to be launched on the 23rd of Decemeber this year – is an immersive installation juxtaposing a Picasso painting laid on its side with a Keiffer painting on a catwalk as well as other artworks interspersed with my own archive. Its aim was to disrupt dominant western narratives but also to insert a different view of history.
I would say my work is interfering with the rules of compliance that are usually followed and understood by dominant cultures.
Your works often feature black and white stripes. What are they standing for within your art? And why this recurrence?
These stripes are derived and influenced by an ancient carving tradition into trees and on shields called dendroglyphs. They are family totemic designs. I use these in a contemporary space to continue culture but also to activate contemporary space with a hypnotic and polarising immersive environment of transformation.
Tell us more about your emotionally strong exhibition you held in Paris some years ago called 52 Portraits & Anatomy of a body record: beyond Tasmania. Who are these people on the photographs? What is the meaning of the wood structure that is linked to the place where postcards and travel diaries are gathered? And why can we find skulls inside as well?
I think it’s best to maybe quote someone here, as I’m way too close to it. Historian Ian Mclean has just written on this work:

Vox: Beyond Tasmania (2013) is a large vitrine, accompanied by its companion piece 52 Portraits, which depicts various ethnic types appropriated from late nineteenth and early-twentieth-century photographs that were sold as popular tourist curiosities and an integral part of the modern scientific discourse on race. The lower glass shelf of the Vox: Beyond Tasmania is filled with photographs as well as books and artefacts associated with the discourse of colonial racial typologies. On its upper shelf rests the branding signifier of this discourse: a deracinated skeleton. It is a real skeleton but its identity has disappeared. It could have been an Aborigine, a convict or a university professor (though its sex is marked in the bones).
For Andrew it had a particular resonance as medical students used it at the University of Melbourne, where the energetic and forward-thinking Richard Berry (1867–1962) had been Professor of Anatomy from 1905 to 1929. In early 1909 Berry made – to much acclaim – fine minimal cubist-like anatomical drawings of fifty-two Tasmanian Aboriginal crania, which were the inspiration for Vox: Beyond Tasmania – thus Andrew’s fifty-two portraits that accompany the work. The crania belonged to skeletons snatched from the graves of Tasmanians. Skeletons of all types were intensely studied at this time of great interest in physiognomy and physical anthropology, but the Tasmanians were the most prized because of their scarcity and their presumed primitivism. Here, Berry believed, could be revealed the ancient genealogy of Englishmen; and it was his job to make these bones speak, to tell their genealogical story.
Andrew also wanted to hear their story. This is the purpose of the large conical-shaped wooden construction that extends from the upper shelf of the vitrine, as if a fantasy-object from Da Vinci’s imagination. At Andrew’s recent exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria, The Right to Offend is Sacred (2017), this construction stood at the head of a path lined on each side by the fifty-two portraits – like the avenue of sphinxes at the Temple of Amun at Karnak in ancient Thebes.
This conical construction could be a mammoth speaker or megaphone from which issues the songs of the dead, or a 3-D perspectival diagram that draws our eyes in towards its vanishing point, located at the diaphragm of the speaker-like cone. At this central vanishing point sits the skeleton’s skull like some holy relic, the holes of its eyes and mouth looking back out at us. More than a memento mori, in stripping bare the portrait the skull has an ontological dimension. Housed on the upper shelf, the wooden construction telescopes the skull’s gaze across the room, transfixing whoever dares look in.
The skull and skeleton is firstly a metaphor for colonial booty torn from its clan roots and raised to an ethnographic discourse and finally to something altogether different, to an ancestral deity. These layers of possibility are packed into the one assemblage waiting for us to dissemble. There we will discover a genealogy of the contemporary or at least of the postcolonial. On one level Vox: Beyond Tasmania is a narrative of colonial discourse and modern science but it is also a shrine containing relics. Like the bones of martyrs found in Italian churches, its objects are real artefacts of this discourse and science.
The transfiguration from the grotesque fates of martyrs to holy relics is at the centre of many faiths and spiritual practices, and also of the aesthetic principle and that of the brand. It is also evident in Freud’s theory of the origin of the Oedipus complex, outlined in Totem and Taboo (1913) – which drew on recent anthropological studies of Australian Aborigines to which Berry contributed – in which the sacrificed Father (murdered by his sons to dispossess him of his wives) returns as the ancestral deity (god) that establishes the social order. An old archetypal story for sure, but one that has branded our modern age and its culture more than most, and to which Vox: Beyond Tasmania gives form.”
7 Brook Andrew 2013  Vox Beyond Tasmania and 52 Portraits 1.jpg
8 Brook Andrew 2013  Vox Beyond Tasmania and 52 Portraits 2.jpg
9 Brook Andrew 2013  Vox Beyond Tasmania and 52 Portraits 3.jpg
10 Brook Andrew 2013  Vox Beyond Tasmania and 52 Portraits 4.jpg
In some of your works such as Witness, Horizon I, or The Forest – to name a few – you also used neon lights to spotlights images. Could you please speak about what these lights bring to your works?
I think neon has an ethereal quality, something magical the way a gas is electrified and captured. The neon highlights, underlines and reveals reflections. Coloured light also has a happiness surrounding its quality, so I often use this to activate alternate emotions that are often surrounding difficult histories.
Let’s now talk about your installation work named Evidence. Tell us more about it.
Evidence was a rare opportunity in a museum that gave me carte blanche – similarly to the exhibition Theme Park in Holland a few years back. Evidence allowed for local Australian content to come together exposing histories not often juxtaposed. For example, a 19th century registration entry into the museum of an Aboriginal woman’s skin or the cutting-edge mid-20th century computer that discovered uranium. Both issues raise continuing concerns about repatriation of human remains and uranium. It also highlighted connections from Australian inventions like the black box recorder, used in planes today and invented by an Australian, to First Fleet British convict chains and blocks of opium the British gave to Indian soldiers during colonial times. Evidence was a commission to accompany the sister show Disobedient Objects from the Victoria and Albert Museum exhibition, which was also on exhibit at the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences in Sydney.
Recently, you held a solo exhibition entitled Brook Andrew: The Right to Offend is Sacred at National Gallery of Victoria. Besides some new ones, this exhibition gathers many of your most memorable works in new contexts. What does this exhibition mean to you? 
The exhibition was a massive immersive installation. It was an opportunity to juxtapose, cross-reference and inspire works to riff off each other. If anything, this was an exercise for myself – more than I thought – to see clearly the strongly held themes that still run through my practice since art school days. Some examples would be the 1993 text piece Naraga Yarmble bungle garagara (a crazy lie all over the place), which showed sections of appropriated 1990s conceptual art theory smashed together to make a nonsensical sentence. This sat next to the 52 Portraits work and the video De Anima, all three works related to making sense of a complex world by undoing the original forms of the source texts and images, and collaging them together in different ways to make new meanings.
In the section Current and Upcoming projects of your website, I have been called to mind by The Cell. Why did you choose to conceive the whole project in an inflatable structure? Who are the models involved here?
The Cell was a work that reacted to the conservative Howard government of August 2001. It was a situation where asylum seekers were trying to get to Australia on a boat and the boat sank, killing many people. It was a very sad and shameful but also divisive part of Australian history. The Cell also represents the disproportionate representation of Indigenous Australians incarcerated. The aim was also to don people in a costume so we became ‘the same’, so we could interact and see what it would be like to reflect on these issues within a closed space. The result is two-fold: people either jump around in it like a ride or they sit in contemplation, or both. Though like the inflatable artwork Jumping Castle War Memorial, many decided to be ignorant of the true nature of the work and aimed to have fun and go crazy in the work, which is in many ways exposing the ignorance or maybe my cynicism. The works are reflections of humanity and disconnection to disparate lives.
4 Brook Andrew 2010 the Cell 1.jpg
5 Brook Andrew 2010 the Cell.jpg
What are you working on at the moment? 
I’m working on an Australia Research Council project called Representation, Remembrance and the Memorial. This project is ambitious as it investigates and searches for answers to a national memorial to Aboriginal loss mainly focused around the Frontier Wars in Australia. I have interviewed community members, architects, cultural experts and artists surrounding sites in Cambodia’s Killing Fields, the Jewish Museum in Berlin and other sites in the America’s.
I am also about to embark on a PhD at Ruskin School of Art, Oxford University, looking at how South American’s – specifically Walter D Mignolo – unpack decolonialsim, and wonder if it’s a strategy for Australia. I am also working on the Deviant Practices exhibition at the Van Abbemuseum.
11 Brook Andrew 2014 Horizion De Anima.jpg
12 Brook Andrew 2015 Evidence.jpg
13 Brook Andrew 2016 the Forest Installation View.jpg
14 Brook Andrew 2017 the Right to Offend Is Sacred 1.jpg
17 Brook Andrew 2017 the Right to Offend Is Sacred 4.jpg