Review / Short Read

Peter Drew Artist Talk and Q&A: Immigration, Australian Identity and the Power of Myth

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Bold black capitals on a brown paper background are staring out at Australians from walls and windows all over the country.

“Real Australians say welcome.”

How do these words make you feel? Proud? Ashamed? Defensive? Dismissive? Inspired?

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A ‘Real Australians say welcome’ poster displayed in a city street. (Image: Peter Drew)

Last week, some of the Adelaide University Art History Club committee members were lucky to attend a talk by Peter Drew, the artist behind these posters, at the University of Adelaide. The talk was organised by the University of Adelaide Amnesty International Club. Peter Drew first became interested in Australian immigration issues while attending art school in Edinburgh, living as a foreigner and following the 2013 Australian federal election in which we first heard that notorious three-word slogan: “Stop the boats.” Since then Drew has been reacting to Australian immigration rhetoric through a series of street art posters. Last year, his ‘Real Australians say welcome’ poster project went viral. Drew suggests that this campaign struck a chord because it asked Australians to think about their own identity and values, rather than to assume the point of view of an immigrant or refugee.

Now Drew has set himself a new mission: to make a man named Monga Khan famous. Monga Khan was born in India and worked in Australia as a foot hawker, travelling between towns and selling goods. He died in Victoria in the 1930s. One hundred years ago, in 1916, Monga Khan had his photograph taken so that he could apply for an exemption to the newly-introduced White Australia Policy. It is this photograph, supplemented with the word ‘Aussie’, that Drew intends to turn into a 1000-poster campaign that will make Monga Khan into a hero of Australian national mythology.

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Peter Drew putting up one of his Monga Khan posters. (Image: Peter Drew)

Mythology is very important to Drew. Many of us are used to hearing myths spoken of as things to be questioned, fought against, busted or exploded. However, Drew sees mythology as a powerful tool that can be used for good. Strict honesty or accuracy is not necessarily a concern: “Good political art presents a lie that we can aspire to make true.” He argues that myths can inspire interest and imagination in a way that unvarnished facts cannot. When we first hear stories about Robin Hood or Ned Kelly as children, Drew explains, we are drawn in by the excitement of the stories first and foremost. But many of us want to learn more and, in doing so, discover the facts which inspired the myths we first loved. This is what Drew hopes to achieve for Monga Khan: to create a myth that will act as a gateway to Australians discovering the lives and achievements of early non-white migrants to Australia.

To do so, in addition to putting up his own posters, Drew is commissioning other artists and writers to contribute works that imagine the life of Monga Khan. He also plans to create posters of several other individuals who applied for exemptions to the White Australia policy, including Afghan Muslim cameleers and Chinese business owners (Adelaide’s well-known Sym Choon family). Drew stresses his belief that most Australians who oppose immigration or resettlement of refugees are not racist. Fear and xenophobia are emotions which are natural, but which individuals and nations need to continually struggle against. The ‘Aussie’ project aims to add to this struggle by creating new heroes, to challenge and inspire Australians to embrace non-white immigrants as a crucial part of our national history and identity.

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Artist Peter Drew with Art History Club committee members Tin Do and Matilda Handsley-Davis. (Image: Matilda Handsley-Davis/Adelaide University Art History Club)

Thank you to Peter Drew and the University of Adelaide Amnesty International Club for this great, thought-provoking event! You can see more of Peter Drew’s work and read more about his projects at his website.

Matilda Handsley-Davis

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