Peter Drew wasn’t always political with his work. The local street artist says he was raised in a somewhat conservative household and disliked political art. But the 33-year-old, who was known locally for his Einstein and Adelaide’s Forgotten Outlaws posters, began to think about what it meant to be Australian while studying his Masters at Glasgow’s School of Art.
“Over in Glasgow I became the ‘Australia guy’,” Drew says. “I thought about what that meant and took ownership of it, I guess. I figured if people are going to put that upon you, you might as well examine what that is. The Federal Election was on at the time , so there was a lot of noise being made about what it meant to be Australian, and lots of that I didn’t agree with. I’ve always disliked political art, so I wanted to find a way of approaching it that had an element of irony to it. The posters I made are almost ironically instructive. They’re almost fascistic, you know? I hope people can see the humour in that.”
The first suite of posters was eye catching and direct, simply stating: ‘Real Australians Say Welcome’. A counterblast to the ‘Stop the Boats’ catchcry and Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers, the posters were embraced Australia-wide with Drew meeting politicians, new arrivals and activists across the country. This was followed by the second part of the series: the Aussie posters, where early Australians of different ethnicities were plastered around Australia with the word Aussie emblazoned below. The hero poster was Monga Khan, a hawker from Punjab, who applied for an exemption to the White Australian Policy, and who Drew wanted to turn into an Aussie folk hero. Late last year, Drew published a book, The Legend of Monga Khan, which he edited with rising local journalist Royce Kurmelovs.
“I was thinking a lot about what made the ‘Real Australians Say Welcome’ project work. It was definitely other people piling on creatively, so how to do that with a character? It had to be through historic fiction and the idea of fan fiction. One of the key things about the publication was releasing the copyright of the character name, Monga Khan, so that anybody could publish a comic, poem or short film about him, so , in a way, it has a life of its own.”
Part of what makes folk heroes embraced by a wide audience are the myths that surround them, which Drew and his collaborators have done with the book which includes fictional tales, poems and illustrations of Khan. He is using the myth of Khan to expand Australia’s
identity and showcase an Australian history that has been neglected.
“We need myths. As long as they are known to be myths, it’s an important tool of identity. Why can’t we have an Aussie folk hero who fulfils a new role or a role which is different? Aussie folk heroes are rebels, they rebel against authority. And what better authority to rebel against than the White Australia Policy?”
Drew has just started to plaster the ‘Real Australians Seek Welcome’ series, a flip of the original posters about the original inhabitants of this country. The series features 250 designs: one for each Indigenous language group.
“It’s an obvious reversal,” he says. “I thought it would be interesting to show that there’s almost like a contradictory flipside to that [the original posters]. It’s like a riddle. Australian identity is a conundrum. I think that’s interesting. It’s not spoken about in that way: people think of Australianness as simple and plain, but I think it is a real riddle. That’s an interesting thing to engage with, especially as an artist.”
The artist says that if you broach the subject of Australian identity it must at some point address our original inhabitants.
“I think it’s the most difficult thing to talk about. I’m part of a generation that grew up with reconciliation. When I was a kid, we were encouraged to write about it, draw pictures and learn songs, but the older you get, and the more power you have in the world, the more anxious people get talking about it. I guess we ar e still bringing up kids and encouraging them to engage with that [Indigenous] culture but there’s a sense that adults like me shouldn’t even speak about it because it’s too politically dangerous. I think it’s the job of artists to take those risks, make a few mistakes and open up the conversation.”
Did Drew collaborate with anyone for the ‘Real Australians Seek Welcome’ project?
“I spoke to a few people that I know. That’s usually what I do. I speak to people I can trust to give me good advice. When I go public with it, it’s all about collaboration and working with Aboriginal, and non-Aboriginal, people and getting them to participate in the project. I’m expecting most of that conversation to happen once I actually launch it. It’s going to take ages, just to make all the posters and get them all out there.”
Drew has received criticism from both the left and right about his previous installments in the Aussie trilogy.
“There was the obvious stuff, you know, people who are bigoted or racist who disliked it. That didn’t really shock or even upset me. You don’t expect people on the left to dislike it, but I think if they didn’t dislike what I was doing, I’d be doing something wrong. I need to be in the middle and show the problems of each side.”
In this political climate, Drew believes people are becoming more tribal and are moving away from the centre.
“Holding the middle ground is the hardest thing to do at the moment,” he says. “If you
become an activist, or an artist that makes political art, there’s a natural tendency to try and be the most progressive and that isn’t helpful.
“I think the extreme left is just as terrible as the extreme right. It’s always been that way, political history shows that. At a certain age you want to fix the world and there is a tendency towards purity in a way, trying to remove all the evil, remove all the racism, but you can’t fix humanity. You can only manage it, that’s what I try to do with the posters.”
For his next project, Drew wants to move away from political art with an idea for a South Australian tourism campaign based on vintage posters.
“Back in the ‘30s there were amazing graphic artists, [who created] mostly lithographs of really idealistic images of Australian scenes. But the more I think about it, well, there’s a massive political element to that as well. Some of the slogans they used, like a ‘Mediterranean climate with a European society’. All these pristine white people looking at this landscape. It’s going to be difficult to not let it get politicised, we’ll see.”
With Drew preparing the final part of his ‘Real Australians Say Welcome’ trilogy, looking back he says the reaction he has most appreciated has been from his family.
“It’s sort of a conservative household in some ways, I mean, very much in the middle but a bit conservative. I thought my parents probably wouldn’t like what I was doing but they’ve really embraced it. And that’s meant a lot to me. They don’t necessarily see the world the same way as I do but they are willing to listen. People in my position should do the same for people who are more conservative. Having genuine tolerance is what the world’s missing.”
Photography: Jonathan van der Knaap
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