Bachelor of Arts (Psychology and Philosophy) and street artist
By popularising a simple four-word statement, Peter Drew has redefined what it means to be Australian.
There’s a contradiction in the success of artist Peter Drew’s most recent work.
Although it has attracted attention as far afield as Finland and Spain, the art series is intimately tangled-up with the nuances of being Australian.
“I think that one of the core ideas in what I do is the notion of challenging Australian identity by celebrating its core claims,” says Peter.
So far, Peter has tackled this challenge and celebration, simultaneously.
He began by travelling around the country pasting up hundreds of posters declaring Real Australians Say Welcome – a phrase inspired by the second verse of the National Anthem.
The next project involved another round of cross-country posters, this time featuring migrants – like Afghani cameleer Mongha Khan – who were granted exemptions to the White Australia Policy, and whose histories embody Australian ideals like determination and courage.
Despite the surface-level parochialism of the campaign, the international attention is understandable. While the posters speak directly to Australia’s perceptions about itself, Peter’s posters also draw on the ongoing international refugee crisis for context.
The ability to distil these two massively complicated issues into simple posters that resonate strongly, is fundamental to Peter’s success. It’s a skill he solidified while studying psychology and philosophy via an arts degree at the University of Adelaide, which he moved into after a brief few months in a commerce degree.
“I think I'm just fascinated by people and that's the reason I got into psych and that connects to the art pretty directly,” says Peter.
“I think that's what's behind all my work as well, it’s an emotional reaction to things and how people construct themselves and their collective identities. They do it emotionally and I think all the psychology is in there. It's in the structure of what I do.”
But while making art that can inspire a change in peoples’ thinking, a hashtag movement and tribute pieces from other artists, seems entirely natural for Peter, making a living as an artist is something else.
Before he was the guy behind #RealAustraliansSayWelcome, Peter was an artist chipping away at his practice for almost a decade. His work ranged from comment projects like Bike vs Car stencils to full blown gallery shows.
He was dedicated to the cause, and undertaking further study at the Glasgow School of Art and working in kitchens to make ends meet, but there were things about the industry that just didn’t sit right – especially the schmoozing and exhibiting.
With his Real Australians work, where Peter’s work is predominantly crowd funded, he’s been able to create an income stream that feels more comfortable.
“I have a cash flow that allows me to keep doing my projects, which I wouldn't have if I just went down the gallery route.”
The model is allowing Peter to look ahead – he’s still in the midst of travelling from one Australian city, plastering-up posters from his Real Aussie series, but his next idea is already beginning to formulate.
“If you think of Australian identity, there's a big chunk missing from what I've done so far, and that's really Aboriginality and how that relates to the notion of welcome,” says Peter.
“I'm thinking a lot about how to do that because, obviously, it's very sensitive, but I think with all of my work, it needs to create some sort of – not a solution to a problem – but at least a step forward.
“Art can do that in a way which politics can't, so I'd really like to step up to that challenge.”
It’s a challenge that will no doubt benefit from Peter’s straightforward way of looking at things, just as other national stalemates have in the last few years.
“I think that there's an honesty in just communicating simply,” Peter says. And, given the response to his work, it’s clear that thousands of Australians agree with him.
I think I'm just fascinated by people and that's the reason I got into psych and that connects to the art pretty directly
Something that I've enjoyed is to try to forge my own path because there is a traditional route that an artist is meant to go