Adelaide–based artist Peter Drew understands the power of myth.
In Sydney on a mission to propel Monga Khan from obscurity to national folk hero, Drew tells me the story of the man behind his mission. “Monga Khan was a man who was born in India but he lived and worked in Australia for most of his life,” Drew says. “Exactly 100 years ago he applied for an exemption to the White Australia policy.”
At first, Drew mistook Khan for a cameleer from the photo. Khan was, in fact, a hawker, as hawkers worked in Victoria, using horses rather than camels. “I think plenty of Australians know of the cameleers [and hawkers] but they wouldn’t think to identify with them,” Drew says. “And that’s a difficult step. You need art to bridge that.” So he’s putting up posters of Monga Khan around the country and calls on poets, writers, and artists to imagine his life. The posters feature a man with a slim and dignified face, smiling cautiously. He wears a turban and suit. The word ‘AUSSIE’ is superimposed.
“I think people are curious and that’s the main thing: to make people wonder who he was,” Drew says. “Just the word AUSSIE and the striking photograph hopefully lead people to discover things for themselves. I think that’s more effective than shovelling the facts down their throats.”
In this political climate, it is perhaps also a necessary reminder: Muslim migrants have been part of Australia’s fabric for a long time. I suggest that myths anchor our cultural values. Drew takes it even further: “Mythology serves history. By re-imagining Monga Khan as an Aussie folk hero, we encourage people to discover more about our diverse past.”
Art and politics often combine and collide. Last year, Drew put up posters with one simple message: ‘Real Australians Say Welcome’. This latest project travels a few steps further: art will mix freely with history and national folklore. It will interact and change through public participation. In many ways, it’s a project to remember the forgotten men and women. Their lives will take the shape of our public imagining.
“Sometimes you need to give people permission to re-imagine our myths,” Drew observes. Moving on from Monga Khan, Peter has created posters of Dorothy Sym Choon. She was sister to the famous Gladys Sym Choon and in 1920 also applied for an exemption to the White Australia policy. He’s created posters of Balcoo Balooch and Ackbar Khan. We don’t know their stories, but these forgotten names and faces can enter our collective memory through art. A
few years ago, Drew spent time away from Australia, completing his masters in Glasgow. “My art changed a lot at some point,” he says. “It used to be apolitical. But I lived away from Australia and began to think a lot about what it means to belong. I began to think about what I like about this country and what I’d like to change.”
Last year, Drew encouraged us to say ‘welcome’. This year, he’s asking us: who is a real Australian? As we finish our conversation, Drew leaves me with one last thought: “These people are survivors, and the stories of survivors are always more compelling than the perpetrators of the crimes of history.”