Emu also known as dhalaay yuulayn (passionate skin), 2004
Enamel paint on anodised aluminium and wood, neon
120 x 164.2 x 18.3 cm
5 from an edition of 5 + AP
Another version of this work is in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
For the figure of the emu in dhalaay yuulayn (passionate skin) (2004), Brook Andrew has taken from a marketing brochure for the Charles Chauvel film Jedda (1955), which is about a young Aboriginal woman who is forbidden to search for her culture by the European family who raised her. The film was the first to star a female Aboriginal lead (and the first colour film made in Australia), and was notable in its day for its anti-assimilationist message. But the film was also not an entirely favourable depiction of Aboriginal Australians, with the lead character abducted and ultimately killed by an Aboriginal bushman who thinks that it will help him atone for a breach of customary law. In the United Kingdom, the film was released under the title Jedda the Uncivilised.
As one half of the Australian coat-of-arms, Andrew has rendered in green and gold to reflect Australia’s sporting colours. Set against the red, white and blue backdrop of the Union Jack, the emu is regurgitating (or eating) the letters ‘USA’. While ambiguous as to its meaning, Andrew seems to suggest the co-opting of native fauna and imagery into British and American culture, not unlike the assimilationist policies of the Australian government over the past two centuries.
The final element of the work is the subtle Aboriginal flag that appears with the emu’s yellow centre and the red and black halves of the work’s frame.
Neon is a regular feature within Andrew’s work. As such an immediate and glaring mode of marketing in the twentieth century, Andrew’s use of neon reflects on the kitsch and gaudy, but also the brilliant and direct power it has to capture an audience’s attention. The flashing figure of the emu and the slow reveal of the letters U-S-A seeming to fall from its mouth add to the satirical edge which characterises the work as a whole and its central question of how to characterise Australian identity.
Image courtesy of the artist and Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne. Photograph by Geoff Boccalatte
A Wiradjuri and Ngunnawal man from his mother’s side, Brook Andrew’s practice is grounded in meticulous historical research with works that confront the narratives of colonial history and memorialise the lives and stories that have been erased by historical amnesia. Andrew’s practice resembles a historian, trawling through archival documents to glean new insights into Australia’s history divorced from what he calls the “Colonial Gaze”. His prolific oeuvre includes photography, collage, sculpture and large-scale installations, informed to a large extent by his Australian Aboriginal heritage, culture and language.
Overtly political, Andrew’s art disrupts conventional art practice by incorporating as many different media, disciplines and cross-sections of society as possible. He has a particular interest in ethnographic photography, finding historical images of Indigenous peoples from Australia and abroad and repurposing them, not unlike Gerhard Richter’s 48 Portraits. He makes frequent use of historical images – both ethnographic and art historical – overlaying them with collaged text to pass comment on colonial history and the Western art canon.
Andrew has a compelling vision for each of his exhibition spaces. Incorporating installation pieces along with neon light displays and sculptures, his work and the walls of his exhibitions have included striking black and white linear patterns based off dendroglyphs (or tree carvings) of the Wiradjuri nation. The diversity in medium and form is a manifestation of his vision of the world as a collection of ‘others’, of disparate voices that all deserve to be heard on their own terms.
Brook Andrew has exhibited for over two decades in Australia and overseas. In 2017, the National Gallery of Victoria staged The Right to Offend is Sacred, a survey show or, as he called it, a “museum intervention”. (Judith Ryan with Brook Andrew, Brook Andrew: The Right to Offend is Sacred, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, p. 2.) The same year, Andrew received a prestigious Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship, Smithsonian Institute, Washington, D.C., United States. In 2020, Andrew was Artistic Director of NIRIN, the 22nd Biennale of Sydney.