Peter Drew’s crusade to redefine the Aussie identity

By Our Reporter
Peter drew with 'Aussie' posters

For Peter Drew, posters are an integral part of his work. The artist, activist, filmmaker and writer cares about his posters as they embody a kind of an artistic energy and his artistic voice is as personal in method as in substance. For years now, Drew has been carrying different posters all around Australian cities and pasting them. It his way of putting up an idea and making it live on.

One might ask how. Drew’s method is simple. In 2016 when he took up the independent mission of sticking thousands of posters of Monga Khan, a hawker who lived in Australia 100 years ago, he wanted to make Khan a folk hero. The posters of Khan all over Australia was Drew’s way of reminding people of the amazingly diverse lives and stories that make up Australia’s history.

“I want to turn Monga Khan into a folk hero so that mythology becomes a vehicle for history. People sort of fall in love with mythology, it’s a fun thing and then they want to find out all the facts. You need your Robin Hoods, Waltzing Matildas and Ned Kelly but we have to get the rest of it across too,” he told me in 2016.

It is, he says, all about provocation and allowing us to open up the discussion and talking about identity in a fluid way.

So, Drew uses public spaces as he finds them “a great equaliser, and an ancient forum. When you address the public through the street, you’re entering into a tradition that emphasises our fundamental freedom of expression, over the value of property”.

Drew’s posters are archival images from the National Archives of Australia, that are a stark contrast to the face of “the stereotypical Anglo, sun-bronzed Australian”.

It was around 2015-16 that he started exploring with the theme of identity. Thus began his multiple poster campaigns, including “Real Australians Say Welcome” and the portrait of Monga Khan titled “AUSSIE”—both of which have become ubiquitous in Australian cities.

Drew travels all around Australia sticking up his ‘AUSSIE’ posters after printing them out. When COVID-19 happened last year, it did not stop him working. He made a poster titled ‘Together Soon Enough’ of two figures embracing in a hug and made them available for free for people to stick them up in public space. After a while, with too many requests, he charged a nominal fee to keep sending them out.

‘It was a lot of fun for me to see people pasting my posters because that is normally what I only do myself,” he says, with a laugh.

But after restrictions on travelling eased, he brought out a set of new six AUSSIE posters featuring women and children who were born in Australia but had to get exemptions to travel because of the White Australia Policy. Fortunately, he finished pasting them in Melbourne just on time before the lockdown. He will be in Sydney in June and hopes to travel round the country later in the year.

So, what is the larger discussion that Drew wants to bring out with these posters? “It’s a broad question,” says Drew as he does not want to pin it down to anything topical.

However, the simplest way of looking at it, says Drew, is that there are many ways in which people can respond to the images. “But there is no ultimate aim that I have. I just want to stimulate the way we think about what it means to be Aussie. There is a sort of an assumption of the word Aussie that is still racialised in some sense for a lot of people, it harkens back to a White majority idea of what it means to be Australian. National identity has an old connection to race essentially. So, it is about breaking that association between nation and race and making national identity more about the other values.

“Breaking that down takes a long time, and culture, like my posters, have a small role. It just chips away at that and helps people realise that being Australian fundamentally does not come down to race, it comes down to a sense of belonging, contribution, et al, in different ways. It is a large topic, it is very hard to sum it all up. Hopefully the posters do that on their own and condense that information into a small package.”

Born in Adelaide, Drew studied psychology and philosophy and started exhibiting paintings and pursuing arts. But it was when he went to study a Master’s Degree from the Glasgow School of Art, Scotland, in 2012 that his art turned towards politics and the Australian identity.

“Living away from Australia made me think about what it meant to belong and I thought a lot about what I liked about Australia and what I didn’t like. Until then my art had been completely apolitical but then I thought maybe I should use my art for that purpose.”

The inspiration behind much of Drew’s work is drawn by what is happening around. Of course, there are lots of inspiration around, he avers, but he tries to see a pattern and come out with some sort of statement that will still be relevant in a decade. “I try to focus on problems that don’t go away.”

The original inspiration for the AUSSIE series with Monga Khan was the political atmosphere in Australia at the time, says Drew. In 2015-16, the country saw a wave of xenophobia. “It was right after the Lindt Cafe siege and ISIS were dominating the news,” he says, adding, “There is, of course, a bit of xenophobia in every country, there is the fear of the outsider but 2016 in Australia was particularly bad. All of a sudden there were groups like Reclaim Australia and Pauline Hanson, who had disappeared for ten years, came out again out of nowhere. There are great things about this country I felt being eroded and attacked by fear mongers and I thought I had some sort of a duty to protect what I like about Australia. That’s what really motivated the project at the time.”

There is a recognition to what Drew does. Today, some of the galleries that own some of his artworks include the National Gallery, the NGV and the Art Gallery of NSW.

Last September, Flags 1, an exhibition of his work were showcased at Peter Walker Fine Art in Adelaide. It extends the ideas raised in the AUSSIE series and incorporates the Australian flag. His AUSSIE series of street posters are currently on display at the Ian Potter Centre in Melbourne. The Centre describes his campaign as seeking “to draw attention to historical and contemporary prejudices by challenging the people’s notion of what a typical Australian might look like”.

Drew says it is humbling to see his works sharing space with so many great talents. He also clarifies that the core ideas behind his work hung in galleries and his posters on the street are essentially the same, just made for different environments. “If you see a poster on the street, you need to communicate very quickly, you don’t necessarily spend time with that image. In a gallery, you spend more time and find details within.”

But what makes Drew happiest is seeing his posters on the streets. “That’s where I always intend to keep them.”

Not surprising then that Drew works in expansive ways. His aim is to travel all around the major capital cities to paste his posters while keeping up with the more important role of being a father to his first-born daughter, who is just five months old. He realises he will have to pursue his passion less aggressively till she turns a bit older.

In 2019, Drew brought out his memoir Poster Boy: A Memoir of Art and Politics, summarised as “The heartfelt story of one man’s desire to be a better citizen in a kinder Australia”.

Quite an apt description for a man who, more than other people, communicates the notions of identity sensitively and through his own sensibility.

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