In his memoir, Poster Boy, artist Peter Drew navigates conflicting perspectives on Australia’s streets and within his own family as he explores what it means to be a political artist, an Australian, and a man.
Over the past decade Peter Drew has used public walls and screen-printed posters to provoke national conversations through now-iconic campaigns such as Real Australians Say Welcome and the AUSSIE portrait series, which repurposes National Archives photographs of people who applied for exemptions to the White Australia Policy. But after appearing in a panel on immigration and national identity at the 2018 Festival of Ideas, Drew knew he had more to say about identity, both politically and personally.
Poster Boy wrestles with these questions as Drew reflects on his life to date and prepares for its next chapter, with a desire to grow closer to his family and start one of his own. His efforts to deliberately provoke – by sharing secrets both political and personal – may divide audiences of his work.
The book, Drew explains, uses family as a metaphor. “Because we all have families and we all understand that families have secrets,” he tells The Adelaide Review. “And Australia’s a bit like that. Australia’s got a history which is unresolved and it’s not spoken about.”
Throughout Poster Boy we follow Drew as he posts his work around the country and gets talking to people of all political persuasions and backgrounds about what the posters mean to them, from the streets of Adelaide to Parliament House in Canberra to regional Queensland. “Online it’s hard to tell whether anyone is really sincere,” he writes in Poster Boy. “But on the street it becomes obvious pretty quickly.”
The divide between online and offline discourse hits close to home as Drew introduces us to his older brother. A reclusive figure who lives with their parents, the elder Drew spends his days as an online troll. As Drew’s younger brother wears a MAGA cap to the family’s Christmas Day celebrations, it begins to seem like provocation is a family trait.
“My work has deliberately set out to play on virality and become memes in order to spread, and for people to have a sense of ownership of it,” Drew says of his work and its relationship to conversations around online activism and so-called ‘slacktivism’. “That’s a terrific thing and one of the reasons I was attracted to street art is because it does allow people to connect in a very raw way. I love that aspect of it … I think of culture as being an extension of nature in that way. How it manages to live among us is interesting to me.”
But there is a difference, Drew says, between art and the political messaging that plasters billboards and fills our screens. “You know that one individual artist climbed that [wall] in order to put up that poster. It’s sort of a spectacle of their labour. But when Clive Palmer stuck up posters for months on end all over the country, it’s really just a spectacle of his wealth. […] Both those [forms] are displays of power though, I guess.”
The question of power forms a recurring, and unresolved subtext throughout the book. While his posters invite comment, Poster Boy sees Drew often avoid his detractors, preferring to work alone and early in the day so that he can put up posters without distraction. Drew is open about his frustration when onlookers ask him questions about anything ranging from wheat paste glue to what his posters can feasibly achieve. While the bold messaging of his posters is often deliberately simplified, in the book he is regularly insensitive to more nuanced critiques of his work.
During his 2017 Seek Welcome campaign, designed to highlight the hundreds of language groups and nations on whose traditional lands we all live, Drew struggles to understand a Kaurna leader’s resistance to his use of the term ‘Kaurna Land’ in a series of posters, and the idea that some forms of culture come with political and racial boundaries that aren’t his place to navigate. He resolves to continue with the campaign, albeit with the more generalised ‘Aboriginal Land’.
It is not until Drew crashes the office of a right-wing lobbyist that it all begins to click. Given his campaigns are designed to build empathy, it’s a surprising turn to see Drew ignore so many voices along the way, only to finally gain a fuller understanding after being called out by someone who, like Drew himself, speaks from a position of great privilege.
“I think that’s really what the book’s about,” Drew says. “It’s about all the characters I’ve met on the street, because obviously [there is] the old white shouty conservative guy, but there are all sorts of other political pathologies which I bumped into. It’s just taken me a long time to digest it.”
His campaigns have earned Drew a national profile, and gained the attention of a wide variety of politicians and activist groups. But at the end of the day, does Drew view himself as an artist, or activist? “Definitely an artist,” he says. “I think what I do is make art disguised as activism. Or art disguised as propaganda.” Despite the fact he has “always hated political art,” Drew says that ultimately, he makes work designed to ask questions.
“That’s what art really is. It’s just a big question mark at the end of an object. And because I say my posters are art there is an implied question mark: Do real Australians say welcome? What is an Australian?”
Like his best-known campaigns, Poster Boy leaves some questions unanswered.
Peter Drew will launch Poster Boy at Imprints on Wednesday, August 7 from 6.30pm
Poster Boy (Black Inc.) is out August 6
This article has been edited for clarity since its original publication in our August 2019 issue. The Adelaide Review apologises for any errors