Michael Cook’s photographic tableau seduces with its aesthetic, and a black and white tone made radiant with a suffusion of barely visible colour.
Placed in a luxurious Victorian-style house, these unfolding scenes of beautifully dressed black people in period costume set up a contradiction, a shock within such civilised interiors, with a naked white person amongst them who becomes, variously, a lamp, a table, a vase, a stool and an ashtray. Object uses a confronting reversal to depict the historic interracial inhumanity once routinely practised - a black person “owned” by a white - and drives home the depravity of carelessly objectifying people. In this series Cook evokes lives, homes and attitudes at a time when slavery was commonplace throughout the world. Slavery was part of Australia’s sugar industry (1863-1904), but even more significant human rights abuses were involved in the colonisation and settlement of the country through policies of theft, genocide and massacre.
The centrepiece of this series is the largest image, Vase. The “vase” is central in the room, her nakedness obscured by the large bunch of Australian native flowers she holds aloft. The “Australian natives” are a neat and witty reversal of the notion of the “indigenous” and represent the exotic otherness so sought after by explorers of the colonial period. Her ankle is tagged with string and a label reading “VASE”, akin to a price tag for a slave going to auction in the style of advertisements in newspapers from the 1800s. Paintings on the back wall add to the symmetry of the arrangement, and echo the “decorator” status of the naked “vase”.
This tableau unfolds languidly across the images, reflecting the leisurely indolence and boredom of the lives depicted here. The dynamic across the series of images is filmic. The naked presentation of the human “objects” denote an associated “uncivilised” status. Their depiction within the setting of an historic house allows an ethical distance for their audience, yet in their objectification of race they note the ongoing discriminatory issues that plague humanity the world over.