Born in Adelaide, Peter Drew’s artworks have been exhibited at major arts institutions around Australia, though his most prominent work is installed on city streets. He is best known for his Aussie poster series, featuring archival photographs of individuals bound up in the ‘White Australia Policy’; a piece of now-defunct legislation aimed at restricting non-white and particularly Asian entry into Australia.
“I like to exhibit my art on the street because public space is a great equaliser, and an ancient forum,” Drew says. “When you address the public through the street you’re entering into a tradition that emphasises our fundamental freedom of expression, over the value of property. I enjoy examining our collective identities and my aim is always to emphasise the connections that bind us, rather than the fractures that divide us.”
This year, Drew wanted to focus the Aussie project on women and children and found that the best way to locate them in the archive was to search for the phrase ‘Australian Born’. “Each poster features a person who was born in Australia but whose nationality was recorded as something other than Australian, due to their perceived race. As with all the Aussie posters, the photos were taken for exemptions to the dictation test, a function of the White Australia Policy. All of the photographs are from the Australian National Archive. Ultimately the posters are an opportunity for people on the street to identify with the people featured in the photographs. When we gaze upon the other and feel their gaze returned, we recognise oneself within the other and, for a moment, all boundaries dissolve. I know that sounds a little fanciful but it’s truly an everyday event, whenever we feel empathy for another person. That feeling is sometimes painful and sometimes joyful, but always somehow transcendent. We leave behind our atomised self and join the whole. I think that’s the power of human imagination. My work just provides an opportunity. However, I’m happy for people to read the posters as they wish. On the one hand they speak to the aspirational ideal of the nation state as an equaliser and unifier. On the other hand they expose the legacy racial prejudice which compromises that ideal. But really such academic notions are secondary, and often offer little more than a means of avoiding feeling. Primarily I hope the posters foster human connection through the image itself and that each portrait shows a spark of the individual’s personality, especially their resilience. I think resilience is particularly striking when seen in young people. There’s a kind of gentle revenge in the fact that their faces have outlasted the racist policy that prompted their photographs. It must have seemed impossible to them that the world might change in such a way. It reminds us that our world might change in turn.”
Explore more of Peter’s work on his website.