‘I saw it on the television’: An early call for diversity in the media

Victoria Perin

‘Capital A Art as it is conventionally understood is at best only a minor contributor to the development of cultural values, about as important as fashion and interior design, in other words not very important at all. The real generator of cultural values in Australia has been the trade union movement and, since the Second World War, increasingly the media…

‘I have always felt that if you were going to get into a dogfight it may as well be with the pit bulls of the union movement rather than the poodles and chihuahuas of the art world.’ Ian Millis, co-founder of the Art and Working Life Program [1]

Looking at a pile of Australian political posters from this Victorian Trades Hall collection, one poster stands out for its freshness, its immediacy, and its obvious sophistication. Tugging it out of the heap, I look at the corner to see the text I am already half-expecting: ‘…ART AND WORKING LIFE PROGRAM’.

Adopted as policy and funded by the Australia Council in 1982, the ‘Art and Working Life Program’ was administered by Union Media Services. Principally preserved in activist and art historical writing concerning Ian Burn and Ian Millis, the memory of this program retains the activist ethos of two former conceptual artists who turned their back on the pretences of the art world in New York and Australia, in order to create artworks  the union movement.[2] Through Union Media Services they re-purposed their visual literacy and communication skills to create and commission artworks that might be  of use to ‘everyday’, working Australians. Intending to bypass the art market and its moral vagaries, their artistic achievements were often in turn neglected and ignored by conventional art history. After his tragic death in 1993, Ian Burn was acknowledged for his contributions to art and writing; whereas Ian Millis has only recently begun to receive critical attention for his devotion to environmental, social and political art and activism.

The Art and Working Life Program was an arts policy of the Australia Council for the Arts that ‘linked an art practice, in a direct and dependent fashion, to trade union communities and encouraged exchanges between artists, trade unions and their members.’[3] Not restricted to poster campaigns, the organisers administered a diverse agenda: commissioning murals, introducing an artists’ residency program in union offices, organising arts festivals and exhibitions, producing informative pamphlets, magazines and education kits, and subsidising arts and craft courses for workers. Their reimagining of visual communication was resourcefully DIY, such as slide presentations accompanied by a script to be read aloud.[4]

The screenprint poster You don’t always get the whole picture… c.1985 is an eloquent example of this visual culture designed to be simultaneously accessible, informative and provocative. Created in Adelaide by Jayne Amble, an artist and graphic designer working for Community Media Association[5], the poster features a person with dark skin in a bright outback landscape that could be the soaring rock formation Kata Tjuta (The Olgas). They hold a white television over their face. In place of their head we see a smiling, white, shiny-haired television presenter. Rather than resorting to the (perhaps expected) red, yellow and black of the Aboriginal flag, Amble has used shimmering blue and iconic orange ochre to broadcast her message.

In the collection of the State Library of South Australia, Adelaide [B 70869/824], a 1987 photograph of the artist displays another example of her work, a complex design that uses uses similar techniques such as photo-screenprinting within an intricate border-design to a more trendy, quintessentially 80s effect. As a graphic artist Amble working within community contexts, she felt  obliged to fulfil her client’s wishes: ‘They can look at my work and actually say, “I don’t like the blue I want it pink,” and I’m not going to be offended…’[6], but in this role she was also able to explore her artistic vision:

One of the things that I attempt every time I do another piece of work is to try a different technique or I might use another colour combination. It had to be tempting for me as an artist to enjoy it, otherwise the enjoyment is not going to come through in the end product.

The creation of this poster formed part of a union-led ‘anti-racism campaign’[7], and the screenprint exemplifies both the active political poster community in Adelaide,[8] and the Art and Working Life Program’s passion for re-programing society’s relationship to the media, something they saw as having incalculable influence over the Australian public.

Although this stylish poster presents a witty call for diversity on our screens, contemporary audiences could also associate its message with the pervasively negative and violent publicity leading up to the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, begun in 1987. Not long afterwards in 1993, Marcia Langton would publish her major essay on the politics of representation, ‘Well I heard it on the radio and I saw it on the television’ outlining the significant harm caused by exclusionary and derogatory media representation of Indigenous Australians.[9] This vivid and bold poster helps to tell that same message another way, and forms part of the history of Aboriginal activism in Australia.

Victoria Perin is in the Art History program of the School of Culture and Communication. Her PhD thesis is on Melbourne printmakers from the 1960s and 70s, and it will provide a history of key group exhibitions in Melbourne, and aim to position artists and artworks within their unique social and professional networks. 


[1] Millis, Ian, A Tribute to Ian Burn, conference presentation delivered at the Trade Union Arts Officers Conference, 1993. Accessible 25 August 2017

[2] See Burn’s biography: Stephen, A., On Looking as Looking: the art and politics of Ian Burn (Melbourne: The Miegunyah Press, 2006); and Millis’ informative website.

[3] Burn, I., ‘Art: critical, political’, Ian Burn: Art Critical, Political, ed. Kirby, S. Sydney: University of Western Sydney, 1996, p. 61 (originally published in Art Monthly Australia, April 1993, no. 58, pp. 19 – 22)

[4] Two slide-kits are referenced by Sandy Kirby in her report on the Art and Working Life Program, the first complied by Ian Burn in 1984 (and revised in 1986), the second by Kathie Muir and Burn in 1991. See Kirby, Sandy, Artists and Unions, a critical tradition: a report on the Art and Working Life Program (Redfern: Australia Council: 1992), p. 34

[5] Amble was active from the mid-1980s, and is sparsely collected by national and state institutions. Insubstantial examples of her poster designs are catalogued in the collections of the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; the National Gallery of Melbourne, Victoria; the State Library of Queensland, Brisbane; the State Library of South Australia, Adelaide; the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS), Canberra; and various university collections. Community Media Association (established 1974. Renamed post 1987 ‘CoMedia’), Community Arts Network (CAN) and other related organisations were the focus of the recent exhibition: Posters Empowering Community: A Historical Snapshot of SA Poster Artmaking, University of South Australia Kerry Packer Civic Gallery, 15 May – 31 May 2017

[6] Amble quoted in Newland, Jane ‘Ready, willing and Amble’, Artwork Magazine (no.3, June 1989), p. 14


[8] See Ewington, Julie, ‘Political Postering’, in Taylor, Paul (ed). Anything Goes: Art in Australia, 1970-1980, Melbourne, 1984, pp. 88 – 97

[9] Langton, Marcia, Well I heard it on the radio and I saw it on the television’: an essay for the Australian Film Commission on the politics and aesthetics of filmmaking by and about Aboriginal people and things (Sydney: Australian Film Commission, 1993)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *