Symbols of Australia Day

Published:  January 24, 2013
Heath Killen
Symbols of Australia Day

Australia Day is just around the corner. For many, that simply means a day off work and an excuse to drink and eat a little more over the weekend. For others it’s more conflicting – a reminder of historical and cultural tensions.

In recent years much of the conversation about Australia Day has turned to some of our iconic national symbols. Questions have been raised over what they truly represent and whether or not they are symbols that have relevant, useful meaning anymore. The spotlight has been largely directed towards the Southern Cross, which has been continuously linked with hostility, and a narrow, ill-defined view of what it means to be Australian.

The truth is symbols are inert. We infuse them with meaning in a variety of ways and we have the power to change those meanings. When I was growing up I always made positive associations with the archetypal Southern Cross graphic. I can’t deny that has changed dramatically as I’ve gotten older though, and to a large extent it has come to represent intolerance and racial conflict for me too – some examples of which I have seen first hand. It shouldn’t be this way. The constellation that this graphic is drawn from – the Crux – is uniquely positioned over this country and it’s neighbours. It is small but highly distinctive. Its mythic presence is deeply embedded not only in Australian history, but in that of indgenous cultures right across the southern hemisphere. It belongs to everyone underneath it, and should represent them equally. It should be a symbol of harmony. It should celebrate difference. It should unite.

We can’t escape our history and we certainly shouldn’t deny it. We should know exactly where we’ve come from and understand the mistakes that we’ve made so that we don’t repeat them. In moving forward, I believe that as a society we should be actively discussing the meaning of Australia Day, and as designers we should be acutely aware of the broader social perception and value of symbols such as the Southern Cross.

Marking Australia Day 2013, the team at Hoyne Design have made one such attempt to investigate our visual heritage - creating two limited edition posters that reflect very different messages about the country’s national day.

‘United Under The Cross’, designed by Andrew Hoyne, carries a serious message about multiculturalism and equality in Australia, which subverts the expected approach by presenting that message in a wistful, ethereal way. In muted colours, the image shows a familiar treetop canopy image with a flock of birds flying above the foliage. The birds fly in the formation of the Southern Cross.

Hoyne says he “hates what the Southern Cross has come to represent in some circles”, and that he “wanted to create something that expressed a different meaning: optimism, freedom, belonging, multiculturalism, equality and acceptance. I believe that if you live in Australia, then you’re Australian. Racism should play no role.”

Personally, I couldn’t agree more with the sentiment. I’d love to see more of this type of engagement with our symbols and icons – engagement that reclaims and attempts to reinvent what they mean.

On a lighter note, the second poster,  ‘Snag – The Day Australia Smiles’ was created by Gareth Ellis, a senior designer at Hoyne’s Melbourne studio. On a gold background, the crossbar of the letter ‘A’ is formed by a sausage on the prongs of a fork. It’s positive, a little silly, and while it doesn’t have the same political edge that the previous poster does it is an open and welcoming graphic, which are qualities worth exploring.

I’d love to hear from others on this topic. Do you believe that we can reclaim symbols that have lost their meaning or been corrupted in some way? Should we be seeking out new symbols, letting the old ones fall into the chapters of history? Are national symbols just too problematic to deal with – particularly with such a diverse cultural landscape and complex, fraught history? What does this coming Australia Day mean to you, and are there any symbols that reflect your personal ideology?

I don’t know if  the current associations around the symbol of the Southern Cross (and others like it) truly represent the dominant ideas of this country, or if they just belong to a vocal minority – but the conversation around the way we visually represent our culture is vitally important, perhaps now more than ever.

2 Responses

  1. Great article Heath. Really well articulated. National icons are a relevant ongoing conversation for our industry to engage in. And thanks for including our poster designs.

  2. Christopher Morrison

    ‘United Under The Cross’ really impressed me. Brilliant.

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