In the small, sun-scorched town of Cloncurry, Australia, the artist Gordon Hookey grew up very consciously with Madison Square Garden. “It was in the minds of most Aboriginal people because of boxing,” says Hookey, 59, a Waanyi. “In the early days boxing was a vehicle for young Aboriginal people – an opportunity to achieve success against a backdrop of racism and inequality.”
Nearly 56 miles away in New York, 56-year-old artist Gary Simmons grew up an avid athlete and sports fan, often attending games at Madison Square Garden. Simmons, who is Black, has often made art that explores sport as a form of choreography, but also as a cultural arena where black athletes were exposed to racism and broken barriers. A 2014 painting by Simmons, “Fight Night,” shows the garden’s famous marquee, reproduced in the half-erased, eerie white outlines that have become a defining element of his work.
The two artists recently got together to work in Fort Gansevoort, Manhattan on Sacred Nation, Scared Nation – a solo exhibition of 13 paintings by Hookey, organized in partnership with Simmons and running until February 20. They were introduced by Adam Shopkorn, an owner of Fort Gansevoort, in part because he noticed that Madison Square Garden was just one of many interests the two artists had in common. Just last year Hookey painted his own painting in the garden. Titled “Ready to Rumble,” it features a cartoon-like coronavirus and an orange with a blonde Trumpian mane with its fists raised in a boxing ring.
Simmons lives in Los Angeles and remembers thinking, “Wow, it’s amazing how two men on two different continents can have these similar interests and approaches.”
Although Hookey’s work is only now being shown on a larger scale in the US, it has been shown in venues such as Documenta 14 in Kassel and the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, the Netherlands. His irreverent paintings leave nothing to be desired, regardless of whether he deals with contemporary politics or the global legacy of colonialism.
At first glance, Hookey’s bold palette and the rough, overlapping elements of his paintings seem to have little to do with the haunted, pared-down approach in a painting like Simmon’s “Fight Night”. But the work of the two men is characterized by disarming humor, prominently placed words and idioms and the understanding that sport can be unifying and divisive: a place where viewers can quickly connect with other fans and yet counteract all kinds of racist abuse Athletes can trigger an opposing team.
Charged images don’t put Hookey off. During a Zoom chat with him, Simmons, and Shopkorn, the three discussed hooded Klan members in Hookey’s paintings depicting athletes or spectators at games.
Simmons also uses clan imagery. He spoke of the dangers of such symbolism, noting that “it can sometimes become almost persistent”. But he remembered the American painter Philip Guston’s own hooded figures – a focus of recent controversy – and said, “I think Guston is a master at it, and I think Gordon is the same.”
Hookey’s “sense of satire enables people not to feel accused but to be part of the conversation,” added Simmons.
Thought bubbles emanating from some of Hookey’s soccer players contain racial slurs directed at Aboriginal athletes. Such arcs, he explained, are “very similar to the N-word in many ways”. But in these paintings Hookey formulates these epithets in full. It even renders the bodies of athletes (like a kids’ TV show could) in the form of the initial letters of the arcs.
When Hookey and Simmons chat, their exchanges seem imbued with a broader awareness of the bridges that link the ongoing struggle of Australian Aborigines and Black Americans for equality and social justice.
These are bridges that were built and maintained by two municipalities over decades. According to historian Rhonda Y. Williams in her book “Specific Demands: The Search for Black Power in the Twentieth Century,” black American soldiers passed music and political information to Aboriginal people in the 1960s. In 1970, a group of Aboriginal activists spent some time in the United States studying racial relations. The following year others formed the Brisbane Chapter of the Black Panther Party.
More recently, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander activists have held protests against Black Lives Matter in Australia in solidarity with the US movement. For many, George Floyd’s death last year was also a painful reminder of injustices in the local area: at least 434 Indigenous Australians have died in police custody since 1991, according to data released last summer.
“I could go over a list of things that bind us together and bind us together,” says Hookey. “In New South Wales there is a group of people who have been influenced by the freedom drives of the deep south. We put things like this into effect so that Aboriginal people can swim in the local swimming pools. “
Hookey is by no means the only Aboriginal artist who explores the subject of black and ponders what blackness could mean in an Australian historical context. ProppaNow, a collective of Aboriginal artists including Hookey, hosted an art exhibition in 2014 called “The Black Line.” The title referred to a nearly 200-mile human chain formed by white soldiers and settlers in 1830 that slowly moved south through Tasmanian terrain to drive the Aborigines off their land.
Hookey makes it clear that he uses words and puns as a form of resistance in his paintings. “One of my stereotypes is that English is my second language,” he said. “I don’t know my first because the invaders, the colonizers, took my first language away from me. Therefore, the only language I have access to is the language of the colonizers.”
He continued, “For the most part, I see that I have a license to use this English language the way I like it. I often make up my own words, misspell the words, or break them down into syllables. “Sometimes it turns out to be a twist on the name of a pop culture icon, like on Pelvis Deadly (2005), which Hookey says is his rendering of a black Elvis. At other times it seems to fixate on individual letters of the alphabet – like the letter Z in “The Rediscovery of Aotearoa” (2006). The painting plays with the words New Zealand and proclaims: “A NEW COUNTRY FULL OF ZEES / A COUNTRY THAT HAS A ZEAL THAT’S NEW.”
“The English language, particularly in Australia, was part of this system of integrating people into this apparatus of colonial oppression,” said Hendrik Folkerts, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Art Institute of Chicago. “Gordon, who changes this language and makes it his own in many ways, also claims a position of agency and autonomy.”
Though Simmon’s role on Hookey’s current show highlights affinities that crystallized between them with ease, It is also evident that Hookey is serious about making connections with people in various communities around the world. Speaking of drawing inspiration from “Native American movements,” Hookey says that “there is an understanding among Native Americans that needs no explanation,” because there are similarities in their cultural experiences. He also spent some time with Palestinians in the Shufat refugee camp in Jerusalem and later created the canvas “Victor, Solidarity, Peace and Freedom” (2017). The artwork can be seen in Fort Gansevoort and envisions the Palestinian soccer team winning the World Cup.
“Murriland!” (2017), an ongoing series of paintings that includes works he exhibited at Documenta 14, was inspired by the epic depictions of Congolese history by the painter Tshibumba Kanda-Matulu. A painting from this series “Murriland! # 2 ”even examines the cultural bridges between Aboriginal and Chinese people. (He has Cantonese ancestry on his great-grandfather’s side). This shows again his shrewd sense of humor: it shows Chinese and Aboriginal delegates who are involved in “warm” relationships – by drinking heartily together.
“He’s not pious,” said Vivian Ziherl, curator and founder of the art and research group Frontier Imaginaries. “He was always an artist who never compromised, never censored himself,” said Ziherl, adding that he brought a “particularly exciting black humor” to his work.
Hookey says he sometimes watches people looking at his art. “When I see a little crooked smile on your face or a giggle, I know the job did its job.”
“I’m trying to show this ugly, terrible, terrible reality in a maybe nice or funny way,” he continued. “For me, humor was a means to seduce people into the harsh political realities of my people.”