Like much of his work, the title of Brook Andrew's new retrospective at the National Gallery of Victoria is tongue-in-cheek. The Right to Offend is Sacred sounds like something Andrew Bolt might say while defending free speech, but given that much of the contemporary artist's work contends with colonialism and the experience of Indigenous people around the globe, on closer inspection his reference to the "sacred" is tinged with subtle humour. The exhibition actually takes its name from a New York Times article defending the right of a cartoonist to depict Barack Obama as a chimpanzee, which Andrew came across during a 2009 residency in New York City.
That experience is actually key to understanding the work of Andrew—Brook, not Bolt. He's above all international in his outlook, engaging with the colonial narratives that are by no means restricted to Australia. "Australia is a focal point for me, but the narratives around Indigenous histories here, I weave them into an equality of narratives internationally," he explains to Creators. "I don't go direct. So even though some of the work in the show is about Australia, some of it is related to Europe, the Americas, and I also look at Asia and the Middle East—often through the gaze of popular media."
While Andrew might easily be labelled as a Sydney-based artist, or a Wiradjuri artist, or a queer artist, he prefers to rise above categorisation. "Sure, I grew up in a very strong Aboriginal family, but we're all people in the world," he says. "We have different sexualities. We slip constantly between identities. I think that's something I've made very important. It's a privilege that that can happen. But because of the neo-fascism that's spreading across the planet right now, it's in danger of being lost."
Andrew works in multiple mediums, all of them bold and compelling—his use of bright neon and striking patterns have garnered him acclaim. He engages with a broader contemporary art dialogue that exists outside of Australia, citing Christian Boltanski, Jenny Holzer, Oscar Munoz, Jimmie Durham, Louise Bourgeois and Ai Wei Wei as influences. He's also enamoured with dadaism—and his collage works, which tend to make use of archival images and text, are a highlight of this show. A small part of the artist's massive collection of books, newspaper clippings, cartoons, and photographs is on display too.
"I'm very interested in the legacies of photography and colonialism and how those photos were taken over 100 years ago, but as you would see in this show there are some histories that repeat themselves," he says. On that note, you'll find plenty of references to current world events in the show, which includes more than 100 works. "Colonialism itself is a legacy of 500 years since the enlightenment. But when we talk about colonialism it's anyone—it could be about people who are being displaced from Syria right now. The negative attitudes towards people fleeing, asylum seekers fleeing to Australia, the backlash against them is part of the colonial discourse, it's ongoing. It's ignorance and misinformation and entitlement that Western nations have. We're all responsible for how we represent those issues."
Does he consider his art to be activism? Of course. "It can't not be. People hardly change, so really I don't necessarily aim to change people's minds about anything. But my practice is about showing people something, being playful but also serious at the same time. It's the viewer's responsibility to unpack it."
Brook Andrew: The Right to Offend is Sacred continues at the National Gallery of Victoria's Ian Potter Centre until June 4. Find out more about it here.