Livin’ the dream was meant to have been unveiled in April at the Paris Photo art fair at Pier 94 in New York, now postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, it was uploaded online.
“It’s a little bit disappointing because it’s every photographer’s dream to get into Paris Photo,” he says. “But I’m not worried it was cancelled. The online stuff’s a little bit weird because my imagery usually needs to be seen close up to see the small detail.”
The good news is that This Is No Fantasy gallery in Fitzroy plans to reopen on Saturday to feature Cook’s exhibition.
Gallerist Dianne Tanzer says two visitors will be allowed in the gallery at a time. “Now the rules have been lifted a little, we can get some people in to look at it,” she says. “We don’t want to waste the opportunity.” This exhibition can also be viewed online.
Cook’s interrogation of the tropes of colonisation and civilisation are rooted in the photographer’s own story.
In 1968, Ronda and Keith Cook, a white couple, were told by the adoption agency of baby Michael: “We just want to let you know he’s Aboriginal. Just want to make sure that’s OK”.
A white teenage girl, Valda Cook – no relation to Keith and Ronda – had given birth to Michael in Brisbane and surrendered him for adoption, as single mothers were often compelled to do. She had fallen pregnant to an Indigenous man.
During his school years at Queensland’s Hervey Bay, Cook was taught a tiny amount of Aboriginal history, but much more about unrelated namesake Captain James Cook and European arrivals in Australia.
Cook’s adoptive mother Ronda, a “tough old lady” who fought for Indigenous rights and the environment, made sure he was aware of his Aboriginal identity, but he did not know his clan.
At 30, Cook re-established contact with Valda, and learned his father is from the Bidjara mob, whose country is southwestern Queensland – though he has never spoken with him.
In Cook’s previous series Civilised, Indigenous models were posed against a shoreline in colonial clothes. One holds a Union Jack flag.
Cook quotes James Cook, who wrote in his journal after arriving at Botany Bay in 1770 that Indigenous people “may appear to some to be the most wretched upon the Earth; but in reality they are far happier than … we Europeans”.
The photographer reads James Cook as “a little bit more open minded” about Indigenous people than Spanish, Dutch and French explorers.
“Cook knew he was going to upset people living in perfect harmony with the environment,” says the photographer now. “He saw that whole future of what was going to happen with colonisation. It’s funny that Cook alluded to the materialism of Western society 250 years ago.”
Steve Dow is an arts writer for The Sydney Morning Herald.