Ann Newmarch, Babies Alive: They Cry When You Touch Them (1977). Collection of Flinders University Art Museum. On display by appointment, Flinders University Art Museum, Bedford Park, Adelaide. The 1970s was one of the most tumultuous times in recent Australian history, punctuated by protests about issues such as the Vietnam War, uranium mining, women’s liberation, apartheid and Aboriginal land rights.
Occupying buildings, marches and sit-ins were popular forms of protest. In 1971, for instance, ahead of the Springboks tour of Queensland, the premier, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, called a month-long state of emergency because of his concern about the protests. This led to a sit-in by nearly 5000 people at the University of Queensland. In 1976, prime minister Malcolm Fraser was forced to take refuge in a basement when he was surrounded by more than 1000 students at Melbourne’s Monash University.
This era of activism was reflected powerfully in the vibrant political posters that flourished across Australian streets, homes and workplaces.
Many of these posters used screen-printing, which proved to be the ideal tool. This printmaking process enabled posters to be produced quickly in response to topical issues. It also enabled large numbers of colour posters to be printed relatively cheaply, making political and social expression more available to the wider community.
Ann Newmarch is one of the best-known artists who created work that was revolutionary. Born in Adelaide in 1945, she always wanted to be an artist but her mother thought otherwise. “My mother said that it was not important for me have a career,” Newmarch told one interviewer. “She said it was more important to buy clothes, to look pretty, to marry an accountant and to have four children.”
Not to be dissuaded, Newmarch studied art education and simultaneously attended art school. In 1969 she was appointed a lecturer at the South Australian School of Art, which was unusual for a woman at that time. In her own practice she became politicised and in 1974 she co-founded the Progressive Art Movement, dedicated to creating art work that addressed social and political concerns.
Newmarch summed up her approach when she said: “An artist has a responsibility as an image-maker to concerns wider than herself or her art: it’s not much use being concerned only about women’s art when uranium is being mined and Aborigines are losing their land, and when Uncle Sam stings your armpit and your kids want to eat at Hungry Jack’s, and when TV takes the place of learning and doing.” She also stopped exhibiting in solo shows at commercial galleries and instead focused on group shows and women’s shows in public spaces.
Newmarch decided that screen-printing was as an ideal medium for communicating her message to a wider audience and an example of one of her iconic prints, Babies Alive: They Cry When You Touch Them, is part of the Flinders University Art Museum collection in Adelaide.
Museum director Fiona Salmon says the work can be viewed as a product of Newmarch’s political commitment but also as a product of its time, when there were protests and people on the streets, people very engaged and vocal in expressing their opposition.
The poster addresses the issue of radiation and, more specifically, potential birth defects. The three babies are glowing and if you look closely you can see they are deformed, with extra legs and arms.
“You are drawn in by the image and captivated by its seeming beauty,” Salmon says. “There’s a baby pink, and a baby blue and a nice hue of mauve, and it all looks soft and pretty and feminine, but then you look and the bite comes, and I think that’s the power of this kind of work. You are sucked in and repelled at the same time, and I think Newmarch is the master of that.”