A history of dissent – part two

Published:  March 20, 2013
A history of dissent – part two

We invited seven designers to choose an image or campaign that they believe has helped define Australia’s legacy of political and social activism. Not intended to be a competition nor a definitive list; we’ve sought to cast a wide net historically, culturally, and politically, to provide an overview of some of the most significant events and issues that have shape Australia, and examine the role that design played in them.

Today we feature responses from Jenny Grigg, Oliver Vodeb, Jason Grant, Paul Mylecharane. You can read the responses from Vanessa McCarthy, Ben Frost and Mimmo Cozzolino in A history of dissent – part one.




Pay the Rent, You’re on Aboriginal Land
Artist: Marie McMahon, 1981

This poster was hanging in the kitchen of a share house in Haberfield that I visited during my first year at university. Studying visual communications at UTS, it impacted because it explained the power of graphic design. The poster had an aura and message all of its own, and at the same time showed that a poster – image and word together – could wield power. This poster was making me stop and think.

Asked to choose a graphic that recorded something of Australia’s political dissent, it came back to me in a flash and researching the story behind the poster explains its strength. McMahon wanted to make a point and does so with graphic clarity. Everything about this poster is direct: the stance of the woman, the intention of the designer and the reason the poster exists.

Conceived as an artist print while McMahon was on Tiwi Island and unimpeded by the concerns of a client, you could say it is a ‘pure’ graphic.

Marie McMahon: The figure of a woman was taken from a black and white photograph of a group of Tiwi on a beach at Cape Fourcroy; the photograph was taken on a camping trip in 1980. During a bush trip in 1980 through Tikilaru, our party encountered a Toyota four-wheel drive on a narrow bush track. In the four-wheel drive were two businessmen from Darwin who had been exploring Tikilaru with a view to developing a tourist resort near a beach. Our vehicles came head to head on the narrow bush track and Winnie confronted the Darwin businessmen in Tiwi style, theatrical, with dramatic stick waving and cracking on the ground and calling to them in Tiwi that ‘Tikilaru is not your country’. In a quintessentially Australian scene, the woman in the poster… stands on a beach, on an island, where land, sea and sky intersect. As another Tiwi, Valerian Munkara, remarked, the poster ‘gives me memories, it reminds us of our mothers’.

Pay the Rent, You're on Aboriginal Land. Artist: Marie McMahon, 1981


‘Precise Stinging’
Designs by: Michael Callaghan, Redback Graphix

What is the purpose of design if not to change the world? Michael Callaghan’s understanding of the potential impact of design as a medium of transformation was the impetus for him to use his talent, intellect and skill to contribute to social change.

While thinking about designs and designers that have defined Australia’s history of dissent, Michael Callaghan’s legacy can’t be overstated. He was an artist, designer, social critic, a visual journalist, but most of all he was a political activist and sophisticated communicator. Coming from, and being part of an activist culture in the 1970s, he naturally used the poster as his medium of choice.

Posters can merge very powerfully with the urban environment – if created and placed carefully they can surprise and engage the public. They always work in relation to the urban matrix and the happenings of everyday life. Callaghan’s work intervened in the normalised and naturalised spaces of everyday life. For him, the normal was not the norm and it was not acceptable, he disrupted the violence of what is granted in our lives and considered new ways of seeing the society and culture of this signifi cant period in Australian political history. His eyes were particularly open to the injustice, oppression and violence he saw around him.

To me, Callaghan focused on the fundamental. His most famous posters are a product of a time and an approach when graphic design was not yet bound to the digital slickness and formal precisions that are so very pervasive and many times so embarrassing in today’s “activist” visual communication work. Importantly, his material visual production was also tightly connected with an intuitive and highly intelligent understanding of communication, along with a strong sense for the culture and issues that needed to be communicated. Most of his work is about raising awareness about particular issues of social injustice. Simple, sometimes quite literal, but still engaging and intriguing. Other works were polemical, many of the designs were not afraid of sharp confrontation, after all semiotic conflict is at many times unavoidable if we want to create dialogue. The “Give Fraser The Razor! (Cut back the ruling class)” poster is razor sharp indeed. Brutal as the oppression itself.

Precise Stinging (above and below) by: Michael Callaghan, Redback Graphix


Tree sits and tripods
Occupying the forests

In 1978, one of the finest rainforests in the world in the North Island of New Zealand was saved from logging by a new ingenious form of protest. Activists occupied the canopies, preventing the logging of 1000-year-old trees and the destruction of irreplaceable animal habitat, an action that led directly to the establishment of the protected Pureora Forest Park.

Today in Tasmania, industrial logging is threatening some of the world’s unique forests. The mandate to clear fell, burn and poison the earth’s last temperate wilderness areas is being challenged by tree-sitting activists.

The ad hoc contraptions designed by protesters successfully delay the felling of old growth forests. This stalling buys time for legal interventions, building public awareness and political manoeuvring. The sits function simultaneously as radical industrial design enabling physical resistance, a kind of interior design providing accommodation in the forest canopy and visual communication as evocative images of protest that leave the isolated forest and travel the world.

There is a duel between the industrial design of the logging corporations, the heavy machinery of annihilation and the provisional makeshift protest structures. Small platforms are wedged high in the trees and sometimes ropes are tied to the loggers’ bulldozers and trucks, so that any operation risks the sitter’s safety. A related design strategy is the tripod used to blockade the forest. The protesters’ bodies are barriers forcing consideration that the forests are worth the risking of human life and that human life is more valuable than commercial priorities of woodchip exporters.

The construction of the platforms is improvised with simple materials such as boards, ropes and tarpaulins. As architecture, it is pure utility, but this basic habitation can accommodate sitters for weeks or months or even years. Although the sitting is usually solo, the sitters are necessarily sustained by a dedicated community providing food and drink and many other forms of support.

One important task for the supporters is communication with city folk. Here, images of the sitters become symbols of resistance: potentially galvanising broader opposition as they air on news broadcasts and proliferate on blogs around the world. Video surveys of a Tasmanian devil’s nocturnal fossicking and photographs of an angel perched on a tripod become potent visual communication.

Although not typically taught in design colleges, the activists are designers creating a future for the forests by resisting and witnessing their ruin. These strategies of occupation are dissent designed to directly oppose catastrophe.

Weld Angel by Matt Newton. Images (above and below) courtesy of Huon Valley Environment Centre

Image courtesy of Huon Valley Environment Centre



Eureka Stockdale flag
Designer: Henry Ross, 1854

Australia has a rich history of dissent. From its very beginnnings on 26 January 1788 when the First Fleet of ‘settlers’ landed; it was clear that those who came were not exactly to be in favor with their ‘keepers’.

For me, no symbol epitomises the struggle for unity and liberty in this country more than the Eureka flag. Reportedly designed in 1854 by a Canadian miner “Captain” Henry Ross, it is said (and also contended) that the flag’s five stars symbolise the Southern Cross joined by a white cross marking ‘unity in defiance’.

Whatever the pure interpretation behind its design originally was, the Eureka flag has had a lasting place in the Australian socio-political atmosphere. From its radical beginnings at Bakery Hill, where miners and their folk stood in solidarity to defend their rights against the colonial aristocracy – to the followers of the Australian Labor Party, who in 1975 used the symbol as a means of unity in the wake of the ousting of then Prime Minister Gough Whitlam; The Eureka flag has made many a rebirth as a symbol of the struggle for democracy.

The importance of design as a means of message cannot be underestimated, and the lasting import that the Eureka flag has had is simple justifi cation. Dr H.V Evatt wrote in 1940 that ‘Australian democracy was born at Eureka’ and to many, the true import of what actually occurred beginning that day at Bakery Hill in Ballarat has been underestimated and shrouded in a political haze.

What however cannot be underestimated, is the purity of this design in its relationship to the ‘brief’. As Peter Lalor spoke on behalf of the 10,000 miners that morning at what would become known as the Eureka Stockade… “We swear by the Southern Cross to stand truly by each other and fight to defend our rights and liberties.”

Eureka Stockdale flag. Designer: Henry Ross, 1854

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