TRACKER: The Art of Protest
<Tracker – Feb Edition>
KISSmyBLAKarts by Sam Cook
The Art of Protest
Within the recent illumination on 26th January of Australia’s race relations with Aboriginal Nations flooding our media, social networks and psyche, I’m immediately drawn to the Indigenous artists responses and the way in which social commentary plays out in these realms. Drawn, might be a stretch, photoshop was definitely involved, as images were shared across cyberspace in almost real time to the events unfolding.
The now exposed media stunt by Federal Government heralding Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s undignified exit as she’s seen ‘running the gauntlet’, or rather being dragged away by her minders, with one shoe missing in an odd display of the security tactic, has become the primary focus for the new wave of Cyber-Blaktavists to embed comedy back into the community and utilise the power of the protest arts.
‘Cinderellagate’, or as re-titled by artist Richard Bell, ‘Gingerellagate’ took immediate hold as .jpegs of the Prime Ministers’ shoe in various poses became affixed to as many captions as could be imagined within the hour. Fast on the heels of this (pun intended) was ‘Shoe Nullius’, a deliberate parody of the terminology used to reference and define the parameter around our collective peoples.
The following day, more serious juxtapositions were created to illustrate the historical measure of trauma – the Australian Flag in flames, set against an overseer with Young Male Warriors their necks in chains. All were part of the broader affirmative actions to privilege Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives over the inundation of hate mongering that lit up the media and social networks, as Australia’s ugliness revealed itself and the blame game ensued.
In amongst the spin of endless banter my thoughts were still fixated on protest art. What is our collective history on this? Who were our artists? Where is the legacy we build on now in the digital frame? I decided to investigate.
By definition, protest art is a term that refers to creative works produced by activists and social commentators as an outcome of rebellion, movements and actions. The most usual form of protest art is print collateral such as signage, fliers, banners, posters and tee-shirts. They may also take on other forms such as installations, performance, graffiti, videos, literature and music. For the most part, the items are portable, disposable and are easily constructed with a clear message.
We’ve documented many examples photographically in the images of the Indigenous rights movements, ASIO fortuitously appears to have done a good job with this documentation too, paying such close attention to the cause, but with only a handful of physical handbills in the national archives and most likely more in individuals personal possessions, very few actual copies remain.
So who were the leading protest artists in the Indigenous Rights movements? Frequently, the items have not been authored or owned by any one person, so few citations can be attributed. Protesters themselves generally were responsible for their own placards and paraphernalia.
One example of this is housed in digital copy in the National Museum of Australia archives. In 1946, the proposal to test British nuclear weapons in the tri-state region of central Australia was brought to the attention of the public. Outrage ensued leading to a protest movement drive by President of the South Australian Aborigines Advancement League, Charles Duguid, and anthropologist Donald Thomson, against the use of traditional lands for these purposes. To aid their cause, the ‘Rocket Range Menace Poster’ was produced. This strong, one colour print, featured an Aboriginal male with shield but no attribution to the artist or designer is noted.
It was in the 1970s that Indigenous protest art manifested into cornerstone iconography that is still prolific in the movement today. In 1971, Harold Thomas, a Luritja artist employed by the South Australian Museum to sketch fauna and flora felt driven to make a flag as a symbol of unity for the protest movement. Creating a design that he purposefully described as unsettling, Thomas then enlisted a friend at the museum, Sandra Hanson, who sewed together the National flag of Aboriginal Australia.
In 1972, the first National Aboriginal and Islander Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC) poster was created to promote ‘Aborigines Day’. Its intention was to raise profile of the rights movement and to be utilised as an effective protest tool. This intent continued until 1977 but was disbanded in 1978 upon the establishment of the National NAIDOC Committee who sought to move from a day of demonstration to a week long celebration.
Noted artist and activist Kevin Gilbert, came into contact with printmaking in the 1960s whist serving time in Long Bay Gaol but it wasn’t until a decade later, that his works gained profile in his first solo exhibition. ‘World's Eyes on Pope John Paul II, Australia 1980s’ was a poster designed by Gilbert to coincide with the Papal visit to Australia and was evoking a Christian consideration for Treaty and Sovereignty.
In the 1980s, another landmark image was born. The Indigenous protest slogan, ‘White Australia has a Black History’ came to profile in the bicentennial year of 1988. It was a slogan graffitied onto the concrete walls that surround the base of the new Australian Parliament building in Canberra, before making its way onto a t-shirt manufactured by a company called Fire Fox and disseminated across the protest with the addition of the words ‘Don’t Celebrate 88’.
By the end of the 20th Century, protest art diminished in profile to that of government funded health and service related resources that swamped our communities and identity. It largely was relegated to Survival and Invasion Day broadcasts, Justice rallies and local community events.
Through an understanding of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander protest art movement and the greater value of arts in Indigenous societies it is possible to make a strong case for its value within Aboriginal rights and as a critical political tool and communicator. Arriving back into present day realities, we are now coupled with the digital frontiers and public displays of solidarity as epitomised in the commemorative t-shirt of the 40th Anniversary of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy.
Our ability to embed our protest art into street art movements, YouTube videos and in countless print on demand interfaces, means the power and reach of our art has the potential to command immediate global attention. This opens the door for the next wave of Blaktavism and well organised online activism networks to support the brothas and sistas on the streets. Through our protest art, we can be assured the world IS watching.
That’s the power of the Arts - we are the storytellers, the humourists, the historians, the philosophers, the commentators of contemporary society and can empower, invigorate, confront and inspire. When all is said and done, its the legacy of the arts movements that will remain unburied in the history books, but stuck in your dome, your wardrobes and on your walls.