“Public space is a great equaliser, and an ancient forum.”
The placing of posters in public spaces is artist Peter Drew’s way of drawing attention to Australia’s immigration issues and a direct response to the Australian government’s ‘Stop the Boats’ campaign. Since 2013 his campaigns have informed peoples’ attitudes to Australian identity, migration, difference and created nationwide community involvement and comment.
Drew’s work continues the role of 1960s and 70’s artists as activists, quite uniquely using social media to fund and advertise his campaigns as well as evoking community responses. We conducted a short interview with Peter about his protest posters ahead of their display at the Museum.
Q & A with Peter Drew
Coming from a maker/artist background what led you to the ‘stop the boats’ campaign?
I was studying at the Glasgow school of art while the 2013 federal election was happening back here in Australia. It was a strange experience witnessing our xenophobic rhetoric from afar whilst simultaneously trying to fit with my new home. It made me think about what it really meant to be Australian. I thought about what I liked about Australia and what I’d like to help change.
Why silk screening?
It’s a great way to mass produce images by hand and continues a tradition of protest art which flourished in the 1960s, but really started with the Gutenberg revolution. I like hand-made inexpensive, accessible art for public space; screen printing is the best way. It’s important to me that my posters are hand-made because it shows my labour is in each of the posters. That’s also why I stick them all up myself. It creates a spectacle of my individual labour.
Why posters on the street?
The street is a great equaliser. Everyone uses the street to move through so it’s an excellent forum for reaching a wide variety of people. I put up my posters without permission so it’s also a way of asserting the importance of expression over property.
Where and when was the first poster you put up?
I used to put up posters of Albert Einstein riding a bike. That was in Adelaide back in 2008.
How many posters have you put up since?
Between four and five thousand.
What is your favourite poster and why?
Monga Khan has become a bit of folk hero: although born in India, he lived, worked and died in Australia. Monga was a hawker who sold goods in Victoria, helping the young Australian economy to grow.
The image used on the poster comes from the Australian National Archive and was part of Khan’s application for an exemption to the White Australia policy.
His photograph and application have been kept for a hundred years in the Australian National Archive. It is only now, however, that he has been given a voice.
Mogha Kahn is a poster with a person’s face, which makes it more popular. I have created a book of short stories inviting writers and artists to comment.
Posters have been a popular tool in political activism providing social commentary on a variety of issues from apartheid to women’s health, smoking to Indigenous land rights. Graphic designers and artists have found the poster as a medium an effective way of communicating these issues using bright colours, bold design and humour.
Many memorable poster designs were produced by Michael Callaghan and others at the Earthworks Poster Collective at the University of Sydney’s Tin Sheds in the mid-1970s, and then at Redback Graphix in the 1980s. Peter Drew’s ‘Real Aussies Say Welcome’ and ‘Stop the Boat’ campaigns are a recent contributor to the art of protest.
The Museum’s collection of protest material also includes badges, clothing, costume and accessories.
Anni Turnbull, Assistant Curator, May 2019
One response to “Peter Drew: artist and activist”
Today I walked home from Parramatta via Harris Park and noticed that the Monga Khan poster on the wall had been defaced by the addition of ‘NOT’ in the top right hand corner. I whipped out a lipstick and put a convincing, red X through the word ‘NOT’. It gave me considerable satisfaction. I’m the 74 yr old mum of Karlie who wrote the email to you that is cited on page 37 of your book Poster Boy’, which I am reading with great joy and finding totally riveting. Congratulations on your great work. Love the whole idea! Makes me proud again to be an Aussie in spite of Manus, Nauru and the whole disaster. Planning to be at the launch tomorrow in Newtown.