Michael Cook’s new series Enculturation opens with babies from a variety of ethnic origins, accompanied by camp dogs, who follow Aboriginal women down a dirt track into a flat dry landscape. Its stillness, and the babies’ compulsion to crawl after the women as they disappear into the scrub, imbues the elders at the heart of Enculturation with an eerie sense of magnetism. It evokes the potential for Indigenous cultures, and their learnings over millennia, to shift the technologies and often surface concerns of white society toward the balance and harmony integral to the sustainability at the heart of First Nations traditions.
Photographed on Country with senior women painted up for ceremony, the narrative traces a journey through the landscape under an opaque and nebulous sky. Children sit amongst the women as they absorb the nuances of Country, and learn to move comfortably within its embrace. Old newspapers lie on the ground, subtle allusions to the historical search for homes in which to place Aboriginal children removed from their families. Yet in this reversal there is the sense that, via observation and influence, the children’s young minds may absorb the immense wisdom and knowledge of Aboriginal culture, which spans over 60,000 years in this place.
While there is a clear reverse reference to Australia’s Stolen Generations (1910-1970s, and ongoing), Cook’s Enculturation explores this difficult territory with a nurturing gentleness drawn from the beauty of its aesthetic. The missions’ segregated dormitory systems are referred to in the iron-framed beds that sit amongst yellow wildflowers in the landscape, with these historical ideas put to rest; equally a gate similar to one used at a notorious boys’ home lies on the ground with flowers growing through its grave-like appearance, evoking memories.
Enculturation acknowledges the wisdom of the women, painted up in their traditional way, within the realities of community: wandering dogs, a remote landscape, and strong relationships. There are palpable connections amongst these people, despite the vulnerabilities inherent in broken furniture and toys, the feral camels and wild brumbies that litter an otherwise pristine landscape. Much can be learned from a past during which Indigenous cultures lived in harmony with the land, at odds with the degredation of the natural environment since industrialisation.
The concept behind Enculturation has stayed in Cook’s psyche for some years, with his own interest in learning as much as he can from the vast Indigenous knowledge systems that are disappearing with its elders. Through the exploration of this historical concept, his imaginative aesthetic innovates, opening the conundrums of our age to an audience for art and culture all over the world.