Having his work exhibited in a world-class museum was not something street artist Peter Drew had thought much about.
For him, art is everywhere. On the walls, in the streets. In the faces of people he meets. It’s all part of our identity – how we foster communication through art.
His latest exhibition, Aussie Posters, has just opened at a place where much of the Australian identity lies – the National Museum of Australia. He says the exhibition’s about “what it’s like to be an Aussie” today.
It’s based on a series of posters he created which features archival photographs of people who applied last century for exemption from the Australian government’s dictation test.
The original images that came with these applications were preserved in the National Archives of Australia. Drew’s taken these archival images and created street art posters by overlaying them with the word AUSSIE.
At the time, the aim of the Commonwealth Immigration Restriction Act, or White Australia Policy, was to limit non-white, particularly Asian, migration to Australia. To be granted entry to Australia, applicants had to write 50 words in a language of the immigration officer’s choice.
The people featured in Drew’s posters were Australian-born or had lived here for many years. To travel overseas and not be subject to the dictation test upon their return, they had to apply for an exemption or face having their re-entry rejected.
Drew said the posters were his response to rising racism and xenophobia in Australian public culture.
Since 2016, he has been sticking the posters up in the streets of our major cities, inviting people to look into the faces of his subjects to see the stories within.
“I like exhibiting art on the street because public space is a great equaliser, an ancient forum, and it allows people to connect in a very raw way,” he said. “I don’t want my posters to be seen as rarefied.
“I remember one time sticking up the posters in Sydney and this lady came up to me and said, ‘where is this exhibition?’ I said, ‘this is it.'”
Drew said he would always see himself as a “people artist”.
“But having this exhibition at the museum opens up a whole new audience for me. It makes this work more accessible which is a good thing,” he said.
“Ultimately, the posters are an opportunity for people on the street to identify with the people in the posters.
“When we gaze upon the other and feel their gaze returned, we recognise oneself within the other and, for a moment, all boundaries dissolve. That’s my aim.”
There’s also the legal issue of hanging up posters in the streets. It was, said Drew, technically illegal. But “it is tolerated”.
“There are many places you can stick things up where people don’t get upset,” he said.
“But I am selective where I place them because they can be provocative.”
There are also times when he can’t resist. Visiting Canberra for the first time many years ago, he stuck up his posters saying, “Real Australians say welcome”, on a well-known government building.
Director of the National Museum of Australia, Dr Mathew Trinca, described the exhibition as “truly stirring”.
“It grapples with some contentious moments from Australian history and will challenge you to consider notions of nationality, identity and social cohesion,” Dr Trinca said.
“I’d like to thank Peter Drew for his tremendous contribution and commend him for these powerful artworks.”
Aussie Posters by Peter Drew, free exhibition, Gallery Mezzanine, National Museum of Australia until 27 August, 2024. Open daily.