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‘Aussie’ posters campaign celebrated in landmark essay

28 June 20240 comments

A major new essay explores the role of public art in shaping our perceptions of people forced to flee their homelands.

In her essay, University of WA History Professor Jane Lydon explores the questions: When do refugees become legitimate ‘Australians’? And how can art prompt public discussion?

The essay focuses on the ‘Aussie’ posters series produced by artist Peter Drew since 2016 and that have become a familiar part of Australia’s urban streetscape.

One of Drew’s most familiar posters is a photograph of Monga Khan, taken one hundred years ago in Australia.

He was one of thousands of people who applied for exemptions to the White Australia Policy. Cameleers, Hawkers and other traders were granted exemptions because their work was essential to Australian’s growing economy. For 70 years they played a crucial role.

In 2016, Drew travelled across Australia posting a thousand copies of the photograph on walls and in public places. In 2021, he posted six more images of Australians from diverse backgrounds.

“I wanted to focus the AUSSIE project on women and children and I found that the best way to find them in the archive was to search for the phrase ‘Australian Born’,” Drew said.

“So, each poster features a person who was born in Australia but whose nationality was recoded as something other than Australian, due to their perceived race.

“As with all the AUSSIE posters, the photos were taken for exemptions to the dictation test, a function of the White Australia Policy,” Drew said.

He launched the campaign against a fraught background of record displacement created by the Syrian Libyan wars with the aim of countering the ‘Stop the Boats’ narrative of the time and Australia’s questionable treatment of asylum seekers.

In her article Prof Lydon says the poster campaign raised issues about citizenship and inclusion in Australia.

“Despite its seeming simplicity, this ‘Aussie’ poster campaign raises a series of complex issues about citizenship, art, and spectatorship that show how claims to belong are negotiated visually in the public sphere,” Prof Lydon said.

“The posters represent a form of public art aiming to challenge forms of exclusion and particularly Australia’s restrictive culture of securitisation. In the context of increasing polarisation across the country’s dispersed population, especially the disparity between rural and urban world views, they aim for a middle ground.

“They arouse forms of visual citizenship – an active mode of engagement in which an imagined political community is produced by all participants, including the viewer.”

Read the essay here:  The idea of ‘Aussie’: refugees, images and citizenship (