Thanks to the wonderful world of social media, you can actually keep up with some great minds. Having been an admirer of Peter Drew's work for some time, the thought of being a foreigner and welcomed in this country (Australia) gave me the courage to send him an email to ask few questions which have been possessing my mind.
Peter is an artist from Adelaide. I first came across with his ‘Art vs. Reality’ video series for dailyreview.com.au and have to say I got obsessed with his controversial approach on art and awareness of real world.
Lately he has been putting up 1,000 posters declaring "Real Australians Say Welcome" supporting asylum seekers across country: “It is a poster of Monga Khan, the Aussie folk hero.... The photograph of Monga Khan was taken 100 years ago in Australia. He was one of thousands of people who applied for exemptions to the White Australia Policy. Cameleers, Hawkers and other traders were granted exemptions because their work was essential to Australian's growing economy. For 70 years they played a crucial role... I'd like to celebrate their contribution to Australia”.
Hi Peter, shall we start with a small introduction about yourself, a little bit of your background?
For the last three years I've been making posters that examine Australian identity and posting thousands of them around the country. I’m 33 years old. Born in Adelaide. Studied in Glasgow.
How did you come up with the idea of “Real Aussies Say Welcome”?
I wanted to address Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers through a viral art project that took an ironic approach to nationalism.
The campaign is really based on one guy in particular, Monga Khan. You often say you wanted to make him famous by meaning using him as a symbol for those people who had hard times through years. Have you actually had a chance to talk anyone from his family in person?
Not his family specifically but, since starting the project, I’ve met plenty of people whose ancestors were affected by the same immigration policies.
Don’t you think some people might think the whole project is in a way provocative?
It is provocative. It’s designed to provoke people into questioning their own assumptions regarding our national identity. Ultimately I want to expand, vitalise and strengthen that identity.
Have you ever received a verbal abuse?
A bunch of times but it’s never very interesting. I’m more interested in the people who might not like what I do but are willing to discuss their opinions. I’m always willing to listen to those people because you can learn about what’s really diving people’s fear. I think it’s important to respect people’s fears and do your best to reassure them before those regress into bigoted beliefs.
How is the response when you put up the posters on the walls? Assuming you must have go through the purpose of the posters millions of times with different individuals.
Most people are just walk by, busily on their way to work. But I hope to make images that stick in the viewers’ mind and leaves them with the question ‘what is that? What does it mean?’ If you can make people curious they’ll actively seek out their own answers and that’s a more effective strategy than simply telling people to change their opinions.
So are Australians brave or gutless? Have you found the answer yet?
Australian’s are just like everybody else. Sometimes they’re brave, sometimes they’re not. We all need encouraging.
Commercial success is important for your project. There are many thousands of artists, very few of them recognized publicly and even fewer of them are consecrated by prosperity. How did you plan this all in terms of social media, your blog and meetings as you have had a great impact on social media so far?
For my first ten years as an artist I also worked in kitchens, mostly washing dishes. That experience really solidified my desire to be financially independent. Ten years is enough time for a few false starts. It’s enough time to give up and start again, and again. I think that process was necessary for me to find my place.
I really liked the recent project ‘My Story My City’. I hope it is well-received. After watching the video I was like “This rich, cultural diversity must be Australia’s greatest strength. At the end of the day, it is central to its national identity…” How did the project progress?
Absolutely, cultural diversity is Australia’s greatest strength and it’s important, for me as an artist, to keep finding new ways to show that. In that sense, 'My Story My City' was a one-off but I’d like to check in on those students in the future, once they’ve had time to write more of their own stories.
Some Aussies get surprised when they find out I’m a Muslim. And I get surprised when they get surprised. I guess many of them has a certain Muslim image which relates more like with appearance. It is a funny thing. The whole Islamic/Muslim image in pretty much every country has re-shaped recently? What is your opinion?
Australians don’t talk much about their religious beliefs. I get surprised whenever they do, but I try not to act surprised because it’s impolite. But I think you’re absolutely right about the assumptions that surround the notion of what a Muslim looks like. Whether it’s race, gender, nationality or religion, I think that all forms of collective identity change over time because they’re all based upon human interpretation. I think it’s important that they change slowly.
What is the most encouraging message you have ever received from your supporter/followers?
I often receive message from people who say that my posters have made them feel a little more welcome here. Nothing beats that.
And what is the most heartbreaking one?
I don’t like telling other people’s stories in that way. Sometime I meet people who are simply thankful for my work and it often catches me off guard because I can tell it’s meant a lot to them in a way that’s impossible for me to fully understand. It can be quite confronting when that happens but it always leaves me energised to continue my work.
What is next?
I’m currently developing my major project for 2017. It’ll be the third and final part of the series.