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Politics at Street Level: Finding Identity in Peter Drew's Real Aussie

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Street view of Peter Drew, Real Aussie series featuring Monga Khan and Dorothy Sym Choon, 2016, Melbourne, courtesy of the artist

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In Banksy’s film, Exit Through the Gift Shop, we witness the rise to fame of Thierry Guetta, aka Mr Brainwash. His culture-jamming street art, prolific in American and European cities, combines politics and celebrity - cheekily debasing both in the process. It is also highly-reminiscent of work by leading street artists (including Banksy) who proceeded Guetta’s appearance on the scene, which may well explain its immediate popularity in galleries. The film concludes with Guetta’s debut exhibition and he explains that, despite selling nearly a million dollars of art on the night, ‘only time will tell’ whether he is a ‘real’ artist or not.

Guetta’s comment is par for the course in an age where street art has become just another commodity - bought and sold by dealers with regard only for market value, not content or aesthetic.

But political ideas only hold power when we respond to them collectively. Commodification encourages the opposite - it isolates and individualises. When street art is used for profit, it becomes a symbol of the way everything in our culture is up for sale. Where street art has in the past sought to draw our attention to the failures of society’s infatuation with money, today it more often becomes one and the same with its object of criticism.

As a result of this universal commodification, our public existence is overwhelmed by the general message that ‘Product A’ has more relevance to us than ‘Product B’; and that in choosing between them we will discover our identity. This has a perverse influence on our political process. Wear this t-shirt to advertise your personal politics and attract like-minded individuals. Avoid buying sweatshop clothing because you’re a conscious consumer. Vote with your wallet, that way it’s your choice where your money goes. These are admirable personal manoeuvres through a system that can only survive when there’s inequality. But the fact remains: in such market-based interactions we individualise our politics by creating our own way of engaging with the system’s rules. We don’t turn to each other to reinforce social values, we don’t organise and protest; we double down on our personal branding, unaware that in doing so we also become a commodity.

As this commodification disengages us from collective identity, we often try to re-establish it by highlighting what we’re not.

On the side of a Currie Street building site, a poster of Monga Khan, the moustachioed, red turban-sporting Afghan immigrant and most recognisable character in street artist Peter Drew’s latest project Real Aussie, has been vandalised. Someone with a black sharpie has run a cross through his face, and the ‘AUSSIE’ beneath the image of Khan has been replaced with the word ‘MUSLIME’ - a weak attempt at an idiom Australia could do without.

The slur is hardly surprising, when Asylum seekers fleeing the horrors of war and famine will both flood dole queues and steal our jobs, states Australia’s immigration minister with a touch of cognitive dissonance. Many Australians pick up and run with this kind of rhetoric, hoping that furious agreement against a perceived ‘them’ will create a stronger ‘us’.

To redress this reaction, the public domain has a central role. Here, street art in its original guise - the thought-provoking, passionate, accessible, critical and staunchly non-commercial kind practiced by pioneers like Arthur Stace - is a forum where we can define what it means to be an Australian without invoking the entrenched tensions of the conversation.

By highlighting the contradiction that lies where our fear of refugees meets our embrace of Australianness, Real Aussie aims to help average Australians rediscover the nation’s true identity. To do this, Drew’s work melds the two ideas together - showing that many migrants are made up of the stuff we most value in true blue Aussies.

Real Aussie draws our attention to a series of one-hundred-year-old ID photos depicting non-white immigrants to Australia. Monga Khan, whose face was scribbled over on Currie Street, carries all the hallmarks of an Aussie folk hero. When Khan entered Australia in 1916 the White Australia Policy was the law of the land, so admission and citizenship required special ‘exemption’ on the basis of unique skills with economic merit. As a cameleer ferrying supplies from the city to outback outposts near crucial resources, the contribution of Monga Khan to Australia’s nation-building was immeasurable, earning him entry, citizenship, and a place in Australian history, minus the fame perhaps owed to him.

Where Khan’s upwardly lifted chin reveals composure, determination and a sense of self, we can tell that he worked with great pride in the face of overwhelming prejudice. Khan knew his identity and if we accept our common mythology - in which the underdog deserves the most praise ­- the defiance in his pose could not be more Australian. By all definitions, Monga Khan should be a folk hero - a true Aussie Battler to inspire us all. Yet, as Drew says, “All of that gets left out of Australia’s mythology, and replaced with something more Aussie”.

Herein lies the importance of Drew’s work - both in Real Aussie and in his previous street art campaign, Real Australians Say Welcome. Australians love a good folk hero because they tell us more about who we are than our government’s version of national identity ever could. Stored within the images of Real Aussie is the actual history of Australia’s evolution. They tell us that when we welcome new arrivals, we also embrace the fresh insights and ideas their difference brings.

We don’t need time to tell us whether Drew is a real artist or not. The answer is plain to see in his ability to tackle an inflammatory subject so powerfully and inclusively that it racks up national and international news coverage and a huge social media following.

Most recently, the hate message on the paste-up of Monga Khan on Currie St has been painted over with a love heart. It’s a clear demonstration that the right message is getting through. Anyone who takes the time to engage with Real Aussie on the street has taken the first step to reclaiming our public space and acknowledging the value of pluralism in our democracy. At street level we can rally around the political once again, and with multiple voices welcome Muslim refugees to share in the real, multicultural Australia - an outcome as true to the nature of street art as it is to our identity.

Street view of Peter Drew, Monga Khan, 2016. Courtesy the author.
Street view of Peter Drew, Monga Khan, 2016. Courtesy the author.
Street view of Peter Drew, Monga Khan, 2016. Courtesy the author.
Street view of Peter Drew, Monga Khan, 2016. Courtesy the author.
Street view of Peter Drew, Real Aussie series, 2016. Courtesy the artist.
Street view of Peter Drew, Real Aussie series, 2016. Courtesy the artist.