Political posters in Adelaide.
Political posters in Adelaide.
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Political posters in Adelaide.
by Mandy Martin
Adelaide, in its own way, was a hotbed of political activity in the early 1970s and Roger [Butler] has, in his exhibition upstairs [Prints and Australia: Pre-settlement to Present], included some work from that period. I wanted specifically to address my talk today to that work, so it’s a historical piece and I’m looking at the period 1973 to 1977, which is rather obscure.
Veterans amongst us will remember Professor Brian Medland, who Andrew [Hill] has already referred to splashed across newspaper headlines as he was arrested at yet another Vietnam moratorium in Adelaide. Medland founded a course at Flinders University called ‘Politics and Art’, and I enrolled in that course as part of my art school studies. I was doing a degree in painting at the time.
I seem to do most of my study for painting — ‘study’ in inverted commas — in the art school. It was through this course that I met other politically active artists, writers, poets, filmmakers, performers, musicians and, later, in 1974 they formed into a group called the Progressive Art Movement or PAM for short, which Andrew also referred to.
Most of the artists like myself had turned their backs on conventional art modes and we’d favoured mass–media forms of communication like video, photography and screenprinting rather than painting which we saw as an elitist and anachronistic activity.
Robert Boynes was making, as part of his MA in film at Flinders University, dialectical movies and videos about painting and image production. As a by–product of these he was making, as early as 1973, four colour screenprinted images, and it was to him that I turned once again, at another institution away from the art school, for assistance.
He taught me photo screenprinting and in turn I passed the skills on to Annie Newmarch, who I then lived and worked with for a couple of years. So, with the artists I’m talking about today, Robert Boynes, Annie Newmarch and myself, not to overlook any of the other artists of that period, I’m talking fairly personally.
We worked together for that period of time, 1973 to 1977, and almost exclusively produced photo screenprints, and these slides are all of works from that period. We were, all of us, members of PAM involved in the front organisation of the worker student alliance, a front organisation itself of the highly secretive CPAML, the Communist Party of Australia (Marxist/Leninist).
These organisations all had an essentially Maoist line, and all the strategies were based around the Maoist two stage revolution, that is allying with the bourgeoisie to expel the foreign imperialists, in this case the Americans, and supporting the working–class struggle.
In turn, PAM had many front organisations itself, the main one being the campaign against foreign military bases.
These are two of Annie Newmarch’s from the same time, Any more questions, gentlemen? and Vietnam Madonna.
The three of us, involved as everyone is in the Left inevitably at some stage, saw sexual politics as a crucial topic. Robert Boynes used the corruption and double speak of the daily newspapers to establish, in a Brechtian manner, a dialectical relationship between the manipulation and exploitation of the audience, and those who own and control the media.
Morals of money from 1975, on the left is an example of this work. Annie Newmarch personalised sexual politics by using herself as a subject of oppression, linking this to the notion of women occupying the same class as the working–class underdog.
This is Four colourful versions of the truth.
I attempted to present women in what could be seen as stereotypical male roles, and attempted to ennoble them in that role.
This is back to front, the one on left. The title’s actually a quotation from a Redgum song at that stage, A lovely house in Springfield and a chauffeur–driven Jag. And Nationalise the car industry, on the right.
We really believed we were in a pre–revolutionary state and, under persistent harassment from the police, we engaged in often foolhardy campaigns. Watergate suggested real possibilities of social upheaval. The car industry, run by Americans, was one of the few viable industries in South Australia, and was constantly threatened by lay–offs and closure.
A lot of our imagery, as Andrew already suggested, revolved around that.
That’s an image of mine on the left, called Car boss, I think, and one of Annie’s on the right.
Cultural workers had moved into the car factories and onto the rank and file of organisations in the car factories, and artists like Annie and I were right in behind, setting up exhibitions and demonstrations, in the factories and workplaces. We screen–printed posters and stickers on the spot, and images like When workers unite, bosses tremble and other plagiarised symbols from May 1968 in Paris, which enraged management as it appeared minutes later on machinery and doors around the factories.
The Australian independence movement, with their Eureka flag, came to take on that struggle and Ann Newmarch, and later others took up their banner.
By this time, the cry was beginning to ring rather hollow for me. A huge fight brewed in PAM, leading to mass resignations. The catalyst was the Free Will Hight campaign, the image on the right. Here is a genuine working–class comrade brutally bashed by police and left to languor (sic) in prison for his involvement in Chrysler’s rank and file.
Mass sackings, which were precisely what the management wanted at the time, followed causing personal disasters for many of the individuals. I deeply regretted what I saw as middle–class meddling for the sake of high–flung political ideals.
The Free Will Hight campaign split PAM and for many months no cultural work occurred. We were all too busy going to heavy political meetings every night. Our personal activities in PAM were being observed and monitored. I personally suffered disciplinary action for fraternising with the enemy on a number of occasions.
The enemy were the lackeys of American imperialism, in this case Terry Smith from ‘Art and Language’ and Lucy Lippard on a ‘power–lecture’ tour, gathering images for the first issue of Heresies, and American feminist publication.
Our organisation perceived the women’s struggle as a secondary struggle, just as the women who had earlier visited from Hanoi perceived it also.
Probably, in retrospect the work of Annie’s and mine that was published in that first issue of Heresies has reached and achieved far more ‘mass work’ than any other single achievement made as members of PAM.
In the meantime, I was busy completing my degree in painting at art school and, although I was now outside of any political organisations, my work was still committed to making ideologically sound art, cheaply available to a mass audience, and I perceived myself as an art worker, not an artist.
The issues were and still are important. This image on the Left refers to the Prophets made by, in this case, General Motors, and the conditions that the women; the wives of the men on the production line, were living and working under.
The issues were and still are important, and it’s gratifying now to see prints that were made 15 years ago when I was at art school in a very hostile environment, when the lecturers were itching to fail me, hanging at the National Gallery.
These are images of railway women in Adelaide in 1974 and 1975.
It’s gratifying to know that our prints and posters of the Vietnam period are in the collection of the Australian War Memorial. All those meetings, demonstrations, and running amuck in the streets seemed worth it.
The political work at that time has certainly shaped the work of Annie, Robert and myself since then, but at the moment I realised we had perpetrated a gross injustice on Will Hight in the guise of social reform, I realised I no longer wanted to use the techniques common to any propagandist organisation the world over.
I didn’t want to hit people over the head any more, and I wanted to be able to critique both capitalism and socialism. The three of us, with many others, had blockaded the Flinders University registry during one particularly potent battle, which started over exams but ended up about American military experiments in Australia.
To keep our morale high a series of lecturers visited including Humphrey McQueen. We were all comrades, working towards a socialist revolution. I didn’t so much desert the ship but I certainly moved to one side.
Humphrey, when he saw me again a few years later and saw the exhibition that these works on the screen at the moment were included in, wrote a letter to me holding up as an example an article he had written in Meanjin, which was sort of a film script called Down–under burn well, all about Sir John Kerr going to dinner at the Australian National University.
Anyway, he wrote to me saying ‘There is one political point that worries me in addition to the one you must get frequently about showing these things in frames in a gallery. There’s no hint of the positive; of the future in your work. I don’t want much of it, just an occasional hint would do. For example, in the ones where Chinese posters have been absorbed into the drawing rooms, one of the posters could have shown people building socialism, and not only carrying guns.’
Now, although this was a common point of discussion in the Left; how to present the negative in a positive manner, I guess I did take it to heart although I don’t think Humphrey can take all the credit for it.
I think there’s a dark side that runs through my imagery and certainly that of Robert Boyne and Annie Neumarch. In fact, her colourful imagery of guns in the gallery upstairs is the Maoist–positivist approach carried to extremes.
I would prefer to see my work particularly that which embraces the industrial romantic sublime, as troubled but non–didactic but also hope that it raises, in a slightly more subtle way, everything that I was fighting for in the early 1970s.
© Mandy Martin, 1989.
Transcript of paper presented at The First Australian Print Symposium, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 1989.