Have you seen these posters? We talk art and activism with Adelaide artist Peter Drew

Peter Drew is a visual artist and filmmaker from Adelaide, South Australia. Peter holds a Masters Degree from the Glasgow School of Art, and his work has been exhibited in the Art Gallery of South Australia, as well as the National Gallery of Australia.

Most notably, however, Peter’s recent Real Australians Say Welcome poster campaign has gained national attention, taking his street art all across the country, including to the steps of Parliament House. We caught up with Peter to chat about the journey of the poster campaign so far, and the role of art in political discourse.

Peter Drew

Despite the intrinsic association that comes with making political art, Peter Drew has always been one to distance himself from activism.

HAPPY: Could you tell us a bit about how you got started in filmmaking and visual art?

PETER: I’m yet to develop a glib answer to this question because it’s a tough question… art is simply the best thing there is, so I want to make art.

HAPPY: For those who only know your work through Real Australians Say Welcome, what’s another project of yours that you’re particularly proud of?

PETER: Looking back at old projects I only see the faults. The web series Art vs Reality is something different to what I’m mostly known for but I wouldn’t say I’m particularly proud of it… I’ll just say that it has it’s moments.

HAPPY: What drew you to creating the Real Australians Say Welcome and Monga Khan posters? Was there a specific moment or event that made you realise Australians weren’t as inclusive as our national anthem?

PETER: No nation lives up to its anthem. Just like my posters, national anthems are meant to be aspirational, like an impossible dream to work towards. When you realise that about political art you can enjoy it much more. Political art needs to be over the top so it can stand above and beyond reality.

Khalik Family Poster, Adelaide 2016
Khalik Family Poster, Adelaide 2016

HAPPY: Would you say Australia has an identity crisis?

PETER: Not really. Australia’s identity is slowly evolving. It’s a very ordinary process. Not everything is a crisis.

HAPPY: Did you expect the reception to be so large? What have you learned from the journey so far?

PETER: I learnt that the Australian political machine is not built for nuanced discussions about the evolution of national identity. It’s more concerned with the daily sport of politics. So the important stuff about identity is really up to us.

HAPPY: It’s clear that asylum seeking is not a black and white issue. What personal stories of immigration and asylum have stood out to you that you’d like to share?

PETER: My friend Ali has a difficult and interesting story. I won’t attempt to summarise it here but you can see how together we attempted to translate it into street art in this video:

HAPPY: You’ve also touched on the issue of Australian immigration and cultural identity with a poster about Great Britain’s illegal immigration to Australia, what’s been the reception from the indigenous community to your works?

PETER: The variety of voices and opinion within aboriginal communities is as multifarious as any other set of communities in Australia, so I won’t attempt to make any sweeping characterisations. However, specific aboriginal people have been very supportive and helpful in developing my work, especially my upcoming project for 2017.

HAPPY: What do you think is fuelling this global sense of conservative and nationalist hysteria?

PETER: It’s not ‘hysteria’ and it shouldn’t be casually invalidated as such. What you’re describing is the discontent of ordinary people who have had their economic and cultural fears systematically ignored by a political class that’s fixated upon a globalist ideology. It’s only natural that the pendulum is beginning to swing back in the other direction and it’s actually quite healthy. People on the left should stop pouting and get to work rebuilding their base by actually listening to people’s concerns and attempting to find common ground.

Peter Drew
Photo by Jessica Clark

HAPPY: What was your experience in political activism prior to the poster campaign?

PETER: I’m not a political activist. I have a natural aversion to causes and ideologies. I prefer art and culture over political activism, because art suggests a conversation which goes both ways. Through culture you negotiate, exchange, collaborate and, like magic, the groups you thought were divided can come together.

HAPPY: What would you like to see more of in the local Adelaide arts scene?

PETER: I just like seeing independent makers sticking with it, and establishing themselves. It takes a long time and you need to have a fair dose of focus and self belief. Every now and then you meet someone who’s got that in them and you just know that they’re going to make it. I love meeting people who are quietly driven in that way that because it makes me feel less weird.

HAPPY: It must be an interesting juxtaposition to have work exhibited in the Art Gallery of South Australia and the National Gallery of Australia, yet to be most recognised by your street-art. What’s the advantages of gallery over street, or street over gallery?

PETER: Working on the street is all about independence. The world of galleries used to make me anxious because it can be very hierarchical, but these days I don’t feel threatened by it at all. Now that I have my own ground to stand on, my relationship with the gallery world has become more balanced. When I started out as an artist I thought that galleries were the be-all-and-end-all of culture, but in reality they’re just one leg of the octopus.

HAPPY: What role does studying art play in helping aspiring artists?

PETER: When you go to art school you’re essentially paying people to take you seriously enough to critique your work. It’s a valuable service because out in the real world most people don’t care and its hard to get quality feed back.

HAPPY: What do you recommend for young artists, filmmakers, or activists looking to find an audience?

PETER: Listen carefully to criticism. I know this isn’t popular advice but criticism is more valuable than praise. Either it’ll make you stronger or it’ll break you, but first you need to let it in.

HAPPY: What’s next?

PETER: I’m working on my major project for 2017. It’ll be the third and final instalment in the Real Australians Say Welcome series and it concerns Australian aboriginality and the origins of diversity in Australia.

peter drew