Taking Back From Bigots Through Art

You may have seen posters along King St proudly stating, ‘Real Australians Say Welcome’. Katie Davern spoke to the man behind the message, Peter Drew, about his street art, targeted at long-overdue political and social change.

Real Australians Say Welcome. Or so thinks Adelaide-based artist Peter Drew who has been trekking around the country for the last two months with an aim to put up 1000 posters in public places which say just that—Real Australians Say Welcome—in big bold, unavoidable caps.

Peter believes that most Australians are “essentially unsure of Islam” and, at the same time, perfectly comfortable using words like ‘multiculturalism’ in everyday discourse. Yet one need only look to events like the Reclaim Australia rally and to Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers (endorsed by immigration policies that are at odds with our international human rights obligations) to see that multiculturalism, in this sense, has significant caveats. Examining this is at the heart of Peter’s work.

The subversion of language in the ‘Real Australians Say Welcome’ project and the immediate reflection on our hypocrisy as a nation that results from seeing a poster is, Peter tells me, absolutely intentional.

“I generally don’t like politically focused art because it’s so earnest—painfully earnest,” he admits. “That’s why with this project, I wanted the tone to be quite clear. This project is ironic and good-humoured, about our identity and how our actions are shaping our identity. It doesn’t really ask people to be extra compassionate towards anyone.”

Peter’s art has done just that in the past: his 2013 project ‘Bound for South Australia’ used the stories and drawings of asylum seekers and people on bridging visas who were living in detention centres. He transferred these first-hand accounts onto the streets of Adelaide in the form of large posters.

“It takes a lot of investment for people to get into something like that [‘Bound For South Australia’] whereas something like this, it has a good hook in terms of capturing an audience.”

To say the project has a ‘good hook’ might be something of an understatement. When I speak to Peter, he’s in Perth on his third state visit and has already met with state premiers, celebrity chefs and the Grand Mufti of Australia—all fervent supporters of his project. Peter has now exceeded the 800-poster mark, outshot his Pozible campaign goal by miles (the profits of which will go to the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre and Welcome to Australia) and has garnered continued supportive national and local media coverage. At the start of the project when Lucy Feagins, editor of blog Design Files put a call out on Instagram for other creatives to contribute to the #realaustralianssaywelcome conversation, they received over 2000 creative responses in just 48 hours.

With a strong social media following of his own, Peter has been able to call out for travel tips in each of the new cities he visits, and has been connected with people who have been willing to help with his transport needs and with the physical act of putting up the posters. Peter tells me of a lady in Darwin who, with her two kids in the back seat, drove him in her four-door ute all over the city. “I got to places where there was no way I would have been able to get to,” he said.

When I ask Peter if he’s had any negative responses to his project, he mentions that he has but mostly online and mostly around the time of the Reclaim Australia rally. “It didn’t really hurt in a way because they were so hysterical. It really shows people what’s driving the debate; just hysterical fear.” For the most part though, the support for ‘Real Australians Say Welcome’ has been overwhelmingly positive.

For those who think his project is exclusively tongue-in-cheek, Peter is quick to clarify: “I think most people want to be proud of being Australian, like to be proud of the place they belong to and that’s what I think the project allows us to feel. I think the reason why so many people got behind it is a sense of relief at having something that they can express … having a bit of that taken back from bigots.”

I first came across this project in Western Sydney, on my walk from Guildford station to my car late one evening. I saw a ‘Real Australians Say Welcome’ poster on a brick wall on the side of a hairdressing salon across from the station. It made me stop and think, and I walked off smiling.

When I mention this to Peter, he said the posters in the western suburbs were very deliberate. “It’s kind of strange. I was so focused on this project being about getting moderate voters to think about [asylum seekers] and to change their perspective, and I didn’t even consider that the project had a whole other audience in asylum seekers themselves and recent arrivals; those people who are feeling increasingly alienated by the actions of groups like Reclaim Australia.”

“Then I started receiving messages from asylum seekers themselves and that changed the way I looked at it and I’m really happy that it did. I think that achieving political change is extremely difficult but making people feel more welcome is something that everyone can do.”

This, Peter says, is his main goal. To make people realise that it’s a small sacrifice to make someone else feel welcome in this country. And if we’re as “true blue” as we say we are, then there should be absolutely no hesitation.

But what about going beyond making people feel simply welcome when they arrive in Australia? We have two major political parties who are certified experts at turning a blind eye to the extraordinary abuses of human rights that are occurring in our name and seem unwilling to budge on immigration issues.

Creating lasting political change may not be in Peter’s immediate sights but he offers one idea off the top of his head: “Perhaps they could spend some of the exorbitant costs of the Pacific Solution creating better legal avenues for asylum seekers to come here from the places where they are most persecuted like Afghanistan and Syria.” He continued, “I don’t think it’s necessary to have children in detention to deter people smugglers. I think that’s just callous. And eventually we’re going to have to answer for it.”

Peter intends on finishing the project in Canberra so as to “bring it home”, believing that as a country, we will eventually have to answer for these abuses. “There will be change, I mean there has to be.”