Cook Ku – 2018

Congratulations to KSCA artist Gilbert Grace who took out the Greenway Art Prize this year! Below is his account of the winning work.

'Cook Ku’ 2018, oil on hemp, 90cm(h) x 100cm(w). The historical artwork is attributed to John Black Henderson, ‘Old Tank Stream’, 1852. A similar view was painted by John Skinner Prout whose family owned the toll bridge across the Cooks River at Canterbury. The painting is on a hemp support. Hemp was to sailing, as oil is to motoring.

'Cook Ku’ 2018, oil on hemp, 90cm(h) x 100cm(w). The historical artwork is attributed to John Black Henderson, ‘Old Tank Stream’, 1852. A similar view was painted by John Skinner Prout whose family owned the toll bridge across the Cooks River at Canterbury. The painting is on a hemp support. Hemp was to sailing, as oil is to motoring.


The GreenWay is a 5.8km environmental and active travel corridor linking the Cooks River at Earlwood with the Parramatta River at Iron Cove and features bike paths and foreshore walks, cultural and historical sites, cafes, bushcare sites and a range of parks, playgrounds and sporting facilities. It also forms one part of the Sydney Green Ring, a 37km, roughly circular active transport corridor and art trail that I have been working on as an art project, lobbying for over a decade to have recognized by state and local authorities.

I feel privileged and a little surprised to have won the 2018 GreenWay Art Prize again (I won the inagural prize in 2010), this time with the work ‘Cook Ku’. The focus and inspiration for all this work is a sense of place derived from the historical record. Examining the 'sense of place' was one of the threads in my MFA thesis and contributes to my social practice of conducting bicycle tours and advocating for the Sydney Green Ring. In 2008 I traveled to Hawaii and rented a bicycle and rode as close as I could to Kealakekua Bay, the place of Cook's death. In the noonday Hawaiian sun, across the azure water of the bay and backdrop of low trees, I could see clearly the glaring white needle mortuary monument to Cook. The monument and the sense of place became a feature of a painting completed in 2015

Attempting to deepen my knowledge of Cook and his times, the better to understand or describe a sense of place for my hometown of Sydney, Australia, I happened upon a book by Gananath Obeyesekere titled 'The Apotheosis of Captain Cook: European Mythmaking in the Pacific'.  

James Cook was regarded as an expert navigator and surveyor and many of his maps were still in use well into the 20th century. Cook spent many years learning his maritime skills as well as acquiring and mastering the latest in technological innovations. His skills were matched by Polynesian navigators who spent equal amounts of time learning the esoteric skills of their mariner craft. If Cook was held in high esteem in many of the islands he visited in the Pacific, is it not possible that some spiritual significance was conferred upon him by the Polynesian mariners? Whilst painting the face of Cook, markings appeared that reminded me of facial tattoos worn by pacific islanders. It seemed fitting to speculate on Cook being honored with his own facial insignia.

It seems Cook was to be drawn into the political warcraft of the Hawaiian Islands through his grudging initiation into the cult of Ku, one of the four Hawaiian gods established by the reigning monarch. The death of Cook happened at the seasonal time when the Hawaiians were preparing for war under the aegis of Ku, when tempers and spirits were already running high.

In researching the historical record of places on the Sydney Green Ring, I learnt about another interesting figure of relevance to the GreenWay. In 1791 Simeon Lord (b. 1771, d. 1840) was transported to this new village for the theft of cloth from the company of Robert Peel. A canny entrepreneur, Lord was already wheeling and dealing with his overseer Thomas Rowley of the 102 Regiment on the voyage.

Simeon Lord bought large tracts of land becoming the sixth largest property holder in Sydney. One parcel of land was at the present Leichhardt, then called Kangaroo Ground, the site of the Cooks River to Iron Cove GreenWay and Art Est Art School and Gallery. Another parcel was between Long Cove and Iron Cove, another was south of the Cooks River on the Mitchell Line of Road, known as Lord’s Forest (later on sold to Michael Gannon and renamed Gannon’s Forest). Lord later bought property at Botany and set up knitting mills and tannery glass works and various industries. He had built a series of dams and weirs to power the knitting mills that remain. He settled with his wife in the Botany area in a house that was sited on what is now Sydney Airport Lands, itself on the banks of the Cooks River. Mary Lord, Simeon’s widow, continued to live in the Botany house until her death in 1864.

The whereabouts of the house is lost to posterity. What we do have are Lords Road, Leichhardt, and Lords Road, Botany which with the addition of the other landmark at Macquarie Street form an imagined tripod. These locations are all within the Sydney Green Ring and make up part of the encylopaedic narratives of pre and post colonial Sydney that inform it.

The lives of the two men (Cook and Lord) seem strangely intertwined. Born to undistinguished households it was necessary for each to acquire skills in diplomacy that would enable each to survive in a social climate in which family and social position were all. The Cuckoo family are 'brood parasites', perhaps a fitting analogy for human beings with their migratory and territorialising, colonial ambitions.