Poster Boy: A Memoir of Art and Politics
Artist Peter Drew trained at art school, but even in that progressive environment, he encountered resistance to his work. In hindsight, he now finds it amusing that he was accepted into the Glasgow School of Art on the basis of his “uncommissioned (illegal) street art projects” and wrote his thesis on street art, yet was asked by the school to stop putting up street art. “I like putting people into a position where they’re forced to admit that they value property over expression.”
Drew is critical of the contemporary art world (“Contemporary art is not leading anything. It’s just a luxury subculture like couture fashion or yacht-collecting…”) and dismisses the notion of contemporary art as a medium for political dissent: “it’s hard to launch a revolution of any integrity from a position of such glamorous privilege.”
To differentiate his own practice from the contemporary art scene, Drew situates it as part of “the counter-cultural movement called ‘street art’ that grew out of the graffiti culture of 1970s New York.” It’s accessible in a literal sense, because it’s right there in your face, as you enter a train station or drive under an underpass. And, like advertising, the content must be easy to “get,” because its audience will (mostly) notice it only as background detail in the landscape they travel through – it’s not placed reverently in hallowed halls of contemplation. Finally, perhaps inevitably, the content is overtly political.
The Real Australians Say Welcome campaign came about after Drew realised that he needed to use short, sharp slogans. His earlier posters about the refugee experience in Australia had contained more detail, requiring interested viewers to stop and read them, and appealed to the viewer’s empathy, but he realised that empathy could be a “burden” that unsympathetic people resisted, and sympathetic people sometimes found too painful.
Researching ideas for a slogan, Drew analysed the psychology behind a line from the Australian National Anthem, “with courage let us all combine and Advance Australia Fair.” “Why courage….” he wondered, “…why not kindness or caring?” He concluded that the word courage avoids an appeal to empathy, appealing instead to patriotism. This gave him the idea for his slogan. “I wanted to…show that sentiments like ‘F*ck off, we’re full!’ and ‘Stop the boats’ are actually debasements of Australian values…” His slogan Real Australians Say Welcome was designed to remove “the burden of empathy” and “appeal to the very same patriotism that conservatives want to protect.”
For his next campaign, he spent time researching the White Australia Policy, at the National Archives of Australia. He came across the dictation test that was used as a “covert tool of racial exclusion.”
“If you failed the dictation test, you would be denied entry into Australia. If you passed the test in English, you could be asked to repeat the test in French or German or any other European language until you failed.” Drew came across the image of a Muslim man who was born in India but lived and died in Australia – Monga Khan. This man became the face of the Aussie campaign.
Drew comes across as a committed devil’s advocate but is uncomfortable with the term activist. He says its because he doesn’t have a personal attachment to any particular cause or marginalised group, but I wonder if he is being too analytical, or, alternatively, whether it’s a strategic move to distance himself from that very politicised term. Clearly, he cared enough about something to produce a body of work speaking to human rights issues that are contentious in Australia.
There is a second narrative running through this book, which is Drew’s personal and family life. I don’t have space to talk about this here, except to note his concluding thoughts on how a political art practice and family life relate to one another: “…to what extent is a nation like a family? A nation is composed of love as well as power. Nations are born; they grow and die. Nations protect, and they oppress. Above all, nations, like families, are composed of stories.”
Drew’s inclusion of himself within the narrative as a flawed (even frequently annoying!) human being, and a self-questioning narrator, is an attempt to counter the traditional, mythological, neutrality, or objectivity, of the privileged white male artist/author. Drew is aware of his privilege but struggles at times to position himself within the politics of his own art practice. He has, at least, enough insight to reveal this struggle to the reader. He also acknowledges and discusses the issues inherent in telling other people’s stories.
What comes through resoundingly in Poster Boy is the artist’s desire to tell human stories that are deliberately kept out of our national narrative. “Of course, you can never tell the whole story, but you can wage a relentless attempt.” Poster Boy is the story of one artist’s attempt to pull apart some widely accepted myths about Australian identity, and subvert them, in order to create space for those traditionally excluded from that identity.