Other works, such as Queenie McKenzie’s 1996 screenprint Osmond Creek (Dadah aw Ning) which depicts the extra-judicial killing of an Aboriginal boy by two police officers in Western Australia, shines a light on aspects of Australia’s history after Cook that many would rather be left in the past.
“That’s a really important work in speaking to that idea of the stories of the past that have been hidden – stories of genocide and massacre – they’re stories that in a way contradict these other narratives, and they need to be recognised as much a part of our national learning,” Gumillya Baker says. “Our capacity to have community in the future really depends on the control of symbolism; the fierce control of symbolism is really about taking control of how the past is represented into the future. And we need to shine a light there, and have the conversations.”
While the circumnavigation never went ahead, the impact of Black Lives Matters protests in foregrounding such occasionally iconoclastic discussions – and the heavy-handed response as seen in the statue’s armed guard – are a reminder of how historic symbols are intrinsically linked to modern-day outcomes.
“What made me feel really emotional was reading the words of Tanya Day’s daughter, who tweeted not long after the inquest in Melbourne that if only the police had protected her mum like they protected their statues – something that doesn’t move is being guarded,” Gumillya Baker says. “What is this fierce, protective response to particular symbols about?
“In some ways Vincent Namatjira’s work begs this very question – a flimsy, two-dimensional representation of Cook that’s not based in any kind of integrity is nothing more than a prop if the stories behind the man don’t stack up, or the promise of wealth and prosperity he embodies hasn’t flowed to our First Nations people.
“The breadth of the show demonstrates that these conversations are not new; Gordon Bennett’s Message in a bottle was painted in 1989,” Baker says. “However, it seems there’s a receptiveness to and renewed opportunities for these conversations.
“Challenging that neat narrative that’s all sewn up – and breaking it up.”
Until 6 October 2020
In the hold: Decolonising Cook in contemporary Australian art
As part of the exhibition’s public program, a free, virtual symposium In the hold | Decolonising Cook in art, performance and text will be livestreamed on Thursday 24 September 2020.
Co-hosted by Flinders University Museum of Art and College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, and presented in partnership with University of Tasmania Cultural Collections, this event will bring leading Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists, curators and academics into conversation to interrogate Cook as an idea, a symbol, and a myth that continues to grip the public imagination. Find out more and register here.