All around Australia, pedestrians and passersby have been wondering: Who is this mysterious man in the red turban?
In recent months, a series of striking portraits have appeared on inner city walls. Branded with the word AUSSIE, the posters can be seen on more than a thousand walls and facades around Australia, from Sydney to Darwin and Hobart to Perth. The intriguing series comprises seven portraits in total, but the central muse of the project is the dashing Monga Khan. He was one of thousands of Australian immigrants - hawkers, cameleers and traders - who were granted exemptions to the White Australia Policy in the late 19th Century because their work was considered essential to Australia's growing economy.
Street artist Peter Drew discovered Khan’s photograph in the Australian National Archive, and decided that contemporary Australians should know about this largely unknown or forgotten chapter of our history. He made up his mind to spread Khan’s image and story far and wide with a national poster campaign. Drew took the idea to crowd-funding platform Pozible and people loved the premise – so much so that 435 supporters got behind him, pledging over $19,000 (more than double his campaign target).
Calling for a more expansive and inclusive definition of national identity, Drew’s posters pose the question: What is a real AUSSIE?
“I picked Monga because his photograph looked heroic; but also because, as far as we can tell, he was just an ordinary guy. I could have quite easily picked a historic figure who was a hero, or who was famous at least,” Drew said.
“But the point was to pick somebody who was ordinary; and therefore could become a symbol for all the other ordinary, forgotten people from that time in history. And also, I picked him because he was a Muslim male, and Muslim men have a sort of undue level of fear directed at them in contemporary Australia. So I thought that would be a good choice as the hero of the project.”
Drew hopes to transform Monga Khan into an Aussie folk hero of sorts. He explains, “If you think about what an Aussie folk hero is, they always have a disdain for authority, and so I thought it would be terrific if we had an Aussie folk hero whose disdain for authority was directed at the White Australia Policy.”
This is not Drew’s first experiment with political street art. Last year he made waves with another poster campaign, pasting the eye-catching slogan REAL AUSTRALIANS SAY WELCOME on hundreds of walls around the country.
“I typically dislike a lot of political art because it tends to be sort of self-righteous and instructive,” Drew said. “But I thought that if I approached political art with a sense of irony it could be something that I’d enjoy.”
While politicians frequently use slogans to dumb-down public debate and instil fear, Drew turns that divisive tactic on its head with his own subversive brand of irony.
“Some people manage to miss it, but the phrase: REAL AUSTRALIANS SAY WELCOME is entirely ironic,” he explains. “There’s no such thing as a ‘Real Australian’. If you think about what nationalism is, a phrase like ‘Real Australians Say Welcome’ makes no sense. Nationalism is all about establishing an ‘in’ group and an ‘out’ group, and if that ‘in’ group is defined by the fact that it says welcome to the ‘out’ group, then it’s fundamentally contradicted itself. So [my slogans are] a deliberate, hopefully obvious reform of nationalism.”
Though its origins can be traced back to the 19th Century, the term “un-Australian” was popularised during the 1990s by Prime Minister John Howard and One Nation Party founder Pauline Hanson. It has since been used as a pejorative term by a succession of politicians and media shock jocks, to censure any beliefs, behaviours or activities that stray from conventional Australian cultural norms.
Drew is wary of politicians who use this kind of language to exploit the base fears of the electorate. He sees public art as a panacea for political fear mongering.
“Uncommissioned art, or Illegal street art, basically puts the freedom of expression above the sanctity of private property. There’s an underlying statement there – and I think that’s something that people are attracted to. And obviously, because it’s out in a public space, it reaches everybody - everybody that uses public space. And there’s something democratic about that.“
He adds, “One of the best things that art can do is bring people close together and dispel fear. I see that as part of my role as an artist. I think that fear is a very natural part of life. One thing that I want to demonstrate with my art is that, ultimately, that fear compromises our values. It makes us weaker, if we let politicians exploit us in that way. So I try to demonstrate, through my art, the connections between people from diverse backgrounds.”
Drew hopes that his paste-ups will pique the curiousity of the people who happen upon them. “The most important thing is that they’re curious, and that they want to find out more, and that they might talk to somebody else about it,” he explains. “That’s how it spreads.”
Drew typically installs his posters in daylight, wearing a high-vis vest - not quite the archetypal midnight-graffiti-ninja.
"When I'm on the street and someone asks me what the posters are about, and I can see that there's a mild suspicion - those are the people that I really enjoy talking to; because they are reasonable, they respond well to facts."
"They might have a bit of fear but I think that we have to have patience and sympathy for those people who have fear, because those people have often been misled and manipulated. We should have some patience, and give them time. There’s a large section of the community in the middle who are not racist, who aren’t ignorant, who are just feeling the natural effects of fear. I’ve got plenty of time to talk to those people.”
As he travels the country, transposing Monga Khan’s memory into a symbol for all those who survived the White Australia Policy, Drew urges Australians to reimagine what it means to be 'Aussie.' Beyond the poster campaign, Drew is determined to write Monga back into Australia’s history and conscience.
“We’re in the process of putting together a book of short stories and poems, all written by mostly young Australian writers,” he says. “A lot of them have knowledge of the Bedouin experience, so it will relate to contemporary Australia a lot as well.”
Images supplied by Peter Drew.