Pub­lic works

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts - Bron­wyn Wat­son

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.”

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