Artist interview with Peter Drew

We Just Need to Relax for a Little Bit

I’m putting up a thousand posters of Monga Khan around the country. Monga Khan was a hawker who was born in India and I found his photograph in the Australian National Archive. He applied for an exemption to the white Australia policy so that he could go home and come back to Australia without being kept out because of his race and so the posters have his photograph and the word Aussie underneath them. There are six other characters in the series but he’s the big hero of the project and I’m sticking them up all over the country. The idea is to really confront people’s assumptions about what is Aussie.

I think what art can do is mitigate fear a bit and point it in different directions. What I try to do with my art is rather than point it at the other, the object of fear. To point our reaction back on ourselves so we consider how our actions are affecting our identity. The way that we treat asylum seekers has changed since Tampa which happened in the same year as September 11. Everyone that I speak to that has real objections to what I do, they have a real fear of Islam. It’s nothing new; it’s just they’ve been given an excuse to express those fears. I think those fears are universal and immutable in some ways. They’re always going to be there. I think it’s important to show people Muslims have been living in Australia for a long, long time. They have a proud history here and we need to just relax for a little bit. Art can do that.

Art’s not very good at dealing with the specifics of policy but it’s good at making us question our identity, our collective identities, like Australian.

This year I’m focusing on this project but I’ve done all sorts of work in the past. It’s been politically based in the last few years but it’s mostly paste-ups, screenprinting, so working paper and sticking up the posters in the street.

The more legitimate you make it the more people will sort of assume that it’s legitimate. It creates the perception. And that’s something that I find really interesting and I like to push that as far as I can because I think that in and of itself is interesting to me. Now I get politicians holding up the poster. I wear a high vis vest when I go to stick up the posters, I act as though it’s my job and I’ve got to get it done.

A long time ago I did a project where I got photographs of criminals in South Australia from the 1920s and blew them up really large so they were 2 metres tall, big, big photographs and stuck them up all around Adelaide. You couldn’t possibly miss them. They were really big and there were lots of them. It just had the person’s name and the crime. They were all sort of innocuous crimes like prostitution or being drunk and disorderly or attempted suicide, things that aren’t considered criminal anymore.

The idea was to sort of show people how the notion of crime changes. What I was doing was a criminal act as well and so a lot of people spoke about it and then the media got involved and got in contact and that created the answer. A lot of the projects I work on don’t explain themselves on the street. It’s meant to create either controversy or curiosity so people are like, “what are all these posters?” Then they talk to one another and then something pops up on social media or mainstream media that gives them the answer then they go, “ahh”, and then they all share it. If you have a poster or any sort of communication anywhere, that explains itself entirely, it’s just bad communication because you get the answer and then you’re done and you get on with your day. You want something that will stick in the person’s mind.

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about doing some work which is much more personal and less politically focused. The more political work you do the more you create an expectation that that is what you are. A lot of people think of me as an activist. I don’t think of myself as an activist at all. I need to disappoint a few people because at some point people start expressing that expectation. They start to say you should do this to please me. I’m not in it to please anyone, in particular, I’m an artist first and foremost and I’m very protective about preserving that.


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