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Celebrating Australia: identity by design

Finished 28 September 2001
Powerhouse Museum

Celebrating Australia: identity by design revealed how concepts and symbols of national identity have been used and developed by Australian graphic designers throughout the 20th century.

Symbols that have come to hold special significance – Uluru (Ayers Rock), the Great Barrier Reef, the shape of the Australian continent, the Southern Cross, Sydney Harbour Bridge, Sydney Opera House, the kangaroo, surf culture and Indigenous imagery – are powerfully represented in many of the works. New and surprising symbols also appear.

The idea for the exhibition was prompted by E McKnight Kauffer’s quote on the invitation to Three Australians, an exhibition of graphic design and photography held at the Lund Humphries gallery in London on the eve of World War II:

We must get rid of the idea … that Australia only stands for sheep farming, the life of the open air and sports – especially cricket. Slowly and surely there are influences at work introducing other aspects of what might be called a more intellectual life

All of the designs post-date the Commonwealth of Australia’s Federal Capital competition of 1911. This international competition was won by the Chicago architects, Marion Mahony and Walter Burley Griffin. Reproductions of Marion Mahony’s original drawings for the city of Canberra were included as they exemplify the over-arching theme of the exhibition – Australia envisaged as a cosmopolitan part of the world, set within its unique natural environment.

Australia’s outdoor lifestyle and unique environment dominated the imagery of Australian identity for most of the 20th century. A 1930s press advertisement, Farmer’s Sydney by Douglas Annand, shows Australia proudly connected to the rest of the British Empire via shipping and its rich rural industries. Celebrating Australia revealed that images prominently associated with Australia at that time – sheep farming, the outdoors, sports and links to the British Empire – have endured in Australian popular culture into the new millennium.

Parallel with these identities, however, was a more cosmopolitan imagining. While the Farmers’ advertisement showed Australia as part of the British Empire it also highlighted Sydney as a burgeoning metropolitan centre, with Farmers depicted as a multi-storied department store on Australia’s east coast receiving merchandise from around the globe. Similarly, Marion Mahony and Walter Burley Griffin’s vision for the national capital was an uncompromising vision of a democratic society that went well beyond architecture into urban and landscape design. A futurist cover design for The Home (1 October 1928) by Hera Roberts and Adrian Feint, also projected Australia into the world by radiating the names of Australian cities towards international centres including London, Madrid, New York, Rome and Paris. Douglas Annand’s Come to Sydney Festival Week poster (1933) and Venetian nights Sydney Harbour poster (for the 1938 sesquicentenary festivities) further highlighted Sydney as a centre of vibrant cultural activity.

By 1939 on the eve of WWII, many Australian artists and designers had worked abroad, and on their return home found themselves working alongside the many émigré artists introducing international modernism to Australian graphic design.

From 1940, designers depicted the Australian continent more explicitly as an independent nation in a global context. Gert Sellheim’s Australia National Journal cover design (June-August 1940) showed the continent on the edge of the globe and under the Southern Cross. By the end of the century, Australia would appear stridently atop the globe, as in David McDiarmid’s Sydney Gay Mardi Gras poster of 1988.

Indigenous art and culture began to make a reinvigorated contribution to Australian graphic design from the late 1960s. After Indigenous artist Harold Thomas’s flag design (1971) was flown on the Aboriginal Tent Embassy on the forecourt of Parliament House, Canberra, in 1972, it was adopted nationally by Aboriginal communities. (It is now recognised by the Australian federal and state governments and is flown on special occasions. The world saw it when athlete Cathy Freeman paraded both it and the Australian flag during her victory lap at the Commonwealth Games in 1994).

Before the late 1960s almost all commercial ‘Australian Aboriginal designs’ were produced by non-Indigenous artists and designers, invariably without consultation, authorisation or consent by the Indigenous custodians of the designs.

Since the 1970s, there has also been growth in the design of symbolic images aimed at drawing attention to Australia’s urgent need to appreciate and preserve, rather than simply ‘sell’, its environment. These either celebrate the environment through links to tourism and activity on the land, or work as explicit conservation graphics.

Celebrating Australia: identity by design acknowledges the contribution artists, designers, photographers and filmmakers have made to projecting an image of Australia through their rich and varied creations and interpretations of symbols of identity, and their exploration of new concepts as we enter the 21st century.

An exhibition developed by the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, Australia, for the Embassy of Australia, Washington DC. Supported by the National Council for the Centenary of Federation, sponsored by Qantas.