Winter 2002

Political clout: Australian posters

Screenprints gave both activists and artists a means of direct expression

Images of dissent have flourished in Australia since the first years of European occupation: scrawled graffiti by convicts in Sydney, satirical wood engravings and etchings in nineteenth-century magazines and trade union banners – all highly public expressions of solidarity. While the twentieth century was the age of the printed image, those with alternative ideologies have not usually had access to advanced forms of printing technology. Instead, they have had to use other means, and screenprinting was one of the most effective. The equipment was easily manufactured, and large numbers of colour posters could be printed relatively cheaply. Screenprinting was practised commercially in Australia from the 1930s, but it was not until the late 1960s that artists capitalised on its potential as a political tool. By the 1970s, screenprinting was being taught in printmaking departments in art schools around Australia.

Many groups involved in the campaigns against the war in Vietnam began to produce posters. Chips Mackinolty, who would become a key figure in the radical poster movement, recalls his introduction to screenprinting at a centre known as ‘Resistance’ in Goulburn Street, Sydney. ‘There was a room out back, perhaps 15 by 30 feet, where there was a screenprinting workshop… the meeting room was covered, late 1968, early 1969, with a multitude of posters that had been produced out of the Vietnam Action Committee and screw (The Society for Cultivating Revolution Everywhere)!’

During the 1970s, political poster groups and alternative print workshops formed in many Australian cities. Screenprints were a way of making art and expression available to the whole community. ‘So long as art, in any of its forms, limits itself to the domain and interests of any one section of society, it will assist in the maintenance of social and economic divisions of that society,’ writes Toni Robertson. She worked with Earthworks (see overleaf), the most widely known and influential poster group, which operated from the ‘The Tin Sheds’, a cluster of World War ii prefabs at the University of Sydney.

Feminists were active in poster groups: Matilda Graphics, Women’s Domestic Needlework Group, Harridan Screenprinters and Lucifoil Posters

in Sydney; Bloody Good Graphics and Jill Posters in Melbourne. The Anarchist Feminist Poster Collective was an Adelaide group. Among other Melbourne groups were Permanent Red, Breadline and Cockatoo; the Poster Workshop was based

at Monash University, while the Wonderful Art Nuances Club worked from the Gippsland Institute of Technology.

By the end of the 1980s, teams such as Redback Graphix (see pages 44 and 45) were broadening their scope and diversifying their activities. The escalating costs and health risks of screenprinting and the arrival of desktop technology meant that it was no longer central. Many artists who were involved with the poster collectives moved into graphic design and few of the workshops survive. Green Ant Research and Arts and Publishing, in Darwin, is one of the exceptions. Its founder, Chips Mackinolty, continues to produce posters of power and conviction.

Colin Little, a former engineering student and university dropout, established the Earthworks Poster Company in 1971. Its poster style was initially derived from the late-1960s ‘decadent’ graphics of the British counterculture (see Eye no. 42 vol. 11) and the psychedelic posters that had flourished in San Francisco.

Little adopted this decorative style to highlight social issues. Alternative lifestyles, based on co-operation, self-sufficiency and responsibility for one’s actions, had been galvanised as a by-product of widespread opposition to Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Hopes were high for the ‘dawning of the Age of Aquarius’, enshrined by the Australian Union of Students at the Nimbin, Back to Earth, Festival of 1972, the year in which Gough Whitlam’s Labor Government was elected.

Earthworks’ posters reflected the broad social concerns of the time and were often signed with such slogans as ‘Another social reality by Earthworks Poster Collective’, or ‘Earthworks for the good of the community’. They advertised musicians such as Bo Diddley and Fairport Convention; the Australian drug film Dalmas; and Yellowhouse in Sydney, an environmental ‘happening’ and homage to Van Gogh associated with Oz art director Martin Sharp. Art Nouveau, gum leaves, rune alphabets, UFOs (flying saucers or ‘unlimited freak-outs’) and mind-bending tributes to the work of Escher were all part of Little’s visual vocabulary. The Earthworks symbol was composed of mystic symbols of the Egyptian pyramid and the evil eye.

In 1972, the company became a collective and expanded during the following years, many of the newcomers being art graduates. The women who worked at Earthworks during these years were particularly influential. Most had art training and a new professionalism became evident. Chips Mackinolty describes Marie McMahon as the first of the new wave of people, who brought in ‘a new aesthetic and new colours and ways of approaching stuff… a really, really precise printer… one of the most exacting in terms of wanting it just right.’

After the momentous sacking of the Whitlam Government in 1975, Earthworks became even more stridently political, and emphasis shifted away from general lifestyle matters towards specific issues. Aboriginal land rights, gay and lesbian rights, the women’s movement (1975 was International Women’s Year), anti-nuclear concerns, the environment and unemployment became central themes. They had access to more sophisticated equipment and employed increasingly professional techniques. Later works used photo stencils printed in sharp flat colours to produce posters of iconic power. Pasted up at night around Sydney, these posters helped to politicise a generation.

First published in Eye no. 46 vol. 12 2002

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