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Captain James Cook is dead, stabbed in a skirmish with Hawaiians at Kealakekua Bay in February 1779. What happens next is horrific or honorifical, depending on whether you are coloniser or would-be colonised: a tribal elder in a red and yellow headdress presents a rolled-up rug to Cook’s crewmen, which contains the British explorer’s blue hat with embroidered gold trim, as well as a tightly coiled blanket – unwrapped now to reveal Cook’s severed leg.

“Oh God!” shouts one British character, recoiling. “Jesus Christ,” says another. “What’s the meaning of this?”

Artist Helen Johnson was born in 1979 in Melbourne, or Naarm, she says, using the word of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation, and grew up in the eastern suburbs. Her English parents had migrated to Australia four years earlier. The lineage of Johnson’s satirical take on Australian colonialism can be traced to both a teenage love of surrealism – she admired US artist Dorothea Tanning – and a concurrent political awakening about Indigenous dispossession borne of listening to music.

“I was taught nothing of Australia’s true histories at school,” says Johnson, whose exhibition Warm Ties has come to Sydney’s Artspace gallery after being seen at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts.

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