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What is a “real Australian”? Peter Drew’s art forces us to reconsider Aussie identities
by Suzy Wrong
A photograph of Monga Khan was taken in 1916, under the White Australia policy restricting immigration from non-English speaking countries. For the first half of the 20th century, Australia adopted that official line of racism, even extending those regulations to Aboriginal people who had left and then wished to return. Exemptions were, however, provided to individuals deemed to be useful, including cameleers like Khan who were essential to the economy’s development.
Artist and activist Peter Drew is currently in the process of sticking 1,000 posters on walls across all eight capital cities. The word “Aussie” is boldly emblazoned with an accompanying photograph of a person of colour borrowed from archives of White Australia exemption documents. Drew taglined the project, “Let’s make Monga Khan famous!”, so Khan’s face features on a vast majority of these posters. It is the simplest of images, yet its effect is undeniably powerful.
Khan is dressed in clothing from his town of origin, Ambala, north of India. Our instincts pick up on the age of the photo, along with the foreignness of its subject, and we cannot help but interpret it as a vision of a different time and place. We want to imbue its meaning with a total otherness, but the unmistakeable capital letters below contradict us, forcing us into a struggle of symbols and meanings.
The word “Aussie” is irrefutable in its contemporariness. We hear it every day, most notably as a shorthand for the media to characterise someone as being “one of us”, and when a person is described as a dinky di true blue Aussie, we are reminded that some are considered more Australian than others, but how that barometer works is entirely a question of how our collective mythology is perpetuated. When Peter Drew asks, “what is a real Australian?”, he is demanding an interrogation into identity. “Did Australia inherit its identity from the people who created the White Australia policy? Or does ‘Aussie’ have more to do with the people who survived it?” represents a need for our mythology to be revised.
Sadly, only 3% of our population are of Aboriginal background. The rest of us are immigrants. Through circumstance and choice, we have all ended up on this land that for only 200 years have we called Australia. The name should apply to all who have made her their home, but human nature has a fondness for segregation, and for much of our short history, the experience has been one of exclusion and injustice. The imperialistic culture of our European influence persists, and their unfounded and unreasonable attitude of entitlement has meant that the Anglo-Saxons of our population have claimed ownership of our nationalism.
Drew is on a mission to offer redress to the situation and even though his message of inclusion is clearly a peaceful one, there is no shortage of opposition to his efforts. The posters are prominent in locations that the artist has visited, but it is his strong web presence that draws the greatest ire. “Some people are still threatened by the idea of multiculturalism, but they’re a noisy minority. I do want to challenge their assumptions by highlighting the history of diversity in Australia, but this project is also meant as a celebration for the people who are struggling to find a sense of belonging in Australia. I try to focus on the celebration rather than the provocation.”
It was barely a month ago that voices of outrage greeted University of New South Wales’ statement about using the word “invasion” as appropriate terminology in place of more established descriptions like “founding” or “settlement”. Truth and myth are not usually bosom buddies, and in this case, lies that favour the privileged are revealed to still appeal to many in society.
It is important to realise that Drew is trying to reach us not only through our screens. In this era of digital ubiquity, he has chosen to hit the streets, using it as his core medium of delivery “because public space is a great equaliser and it’s also an ancient forum. When you address the public through the street you’re entering into a tradition that dates back to the first cities and emphasises our fundamental freedom of expression better than any other means.”
On Drew’s posters, we see only one photo and one word. Its meaning can only be derived from the culture that we share. We interpret his work personally, but also wonder how others in our community would respond. Peter Drew’s efforts insist on our embroilment. When we make Monga Khan famous, the story is not about the artist or his subject. It is about us, limitless in our plurality.
For more information on Peter Drew, go to peterdrewarts.com