‘Winja Ulupna’: Public Health Posters as Visual Culture
Winja Ulupna is an Aboriginal women’s residential drug and alcohol recovery house based in St Kilda. Established in 1976 through Australian Government investment in residential rehabilitation programs controlled by Aboriginal communities, as distinct from State rehabilitation units (Brady 2002), Winja Ulupna, or ‘women’s haven’, was also the first rehabilitation house in Australia specifically for Aboriginal women. As an early example of an Aboriginal women’s run program providing culturally sensitive alcohol and drug services, the poster highlights the importance of community-controlled residential programs in the broader context of a continued denial of the right of self-determination for Indigenous Australians by governments at that time. Designed by Health Productions in 1991 (the art department of the Health Promotion Unit, for the Government of Victoria), the poster is also significant in terms of the history of government-sponsored poster design to disseminate public health messages.
The visual culture of health promotions is a growing field of research, and extant posters offer a rich site of analysis for the state’s use of mass media in public health campaigns. Government-sponsored health posters use the language of advertising, which is well understood by consumers, to communicate the desirability and undesirability of different health behaviours. As such, they aim to influence or change the beliefs, knowledge and actions of the public, and as forms of material culture, they offer evidence of changing health priorities, advertising trends and government regulations. Their design and visual language also reflects contemporary health beliefs: compare ‘Winja Ulupna’ to public health posters from earlier in the 20th century advertising the health benefits of consuming alcohol and now-illegal substances.
With its stark visual design, ‘Winja Ulupna’ draws on the symbolic black, red and yellow colours of the Australian Aboriginal Flag, and depicts a half-open, four-panel door with a glass arch carrying the slogan, ‘Our door is always open’. While the message aims to be welcoming, but the effect is anonymous and somewhat austere: the state’s influence in delivering a service rather than identity or ownership for Aboriginal women seems to underpin this health initiative.
As material culture objects, health promotion posters are not intended to last, but to capture the attention of the public in order to communicate a message – in this case, to advertise the services of a Koorie-run drug and alcohol service for women. As archival items, they are usually catalogued as ephemera: and since they were always transitory documents or materials created for everyday use, they are not intended to be retained or preserved. For those posters that did last, there are however questions that remain to be explored about their context and provenance.
As part of the collection of political posters begun by George Seelaf, first Arts Officer of Trades Hall, ‘Winja Ulupna’ demonstrates an ongoing connection between the Indigenous rights and labour movements from the 1970s until the present day. Avenues for further research are rich: why was the ‘Winja Ulupna’ poster selected for inclusion in the Trades Hall collection? Was it by chance, a personal interest of Seelaf or his successor, Brian Boyd, or is this poster a particularly effective poster preserved as an exemplar?
Perhaps more importantly for an understanding of the history of how indigenous health has been delivered and managed in Australia, we might also ask: Who were the artists working on these posters at Health Promotions in the early 1990s, and how much did they engage with the Victorian Indigenous community or artists in the creation of this particular design? Does any in-situ documentation of the “WInja Ulupna” poster’s display exist, and what does this context – on public walls, in doctors’ waiting rooms, community service offices or hospitals – tell us about its social impact? What meaning does the poster have to the founders, staff and participants in the program? What is the history of the Trades Hall Council’s support of Indigenous social projects? How does the meaning of an ephemeral poster change when it is preserved in an institutional archive, and no longer on public display?
Ainslee Meredith is a PhD Student with the Grimwade Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation, currently researching the accessibility of conservation services to different communities across Australia.
Brady, M 2002, Indigenous residential treatment programs for drug and alcohol problems: current status and options for improvement, report no. 236/2002, Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research, Canberra.
lhilakari 2017, ‘If our indigenous brothers & sisters are calling for a treaty, then you can count on Trades Hall to stand with you #Solidarity #Uluru’, 25 May, Twitter post, viewed 12 September 2017, <https://twitter.com/lhilakari/status/867998277198675968>.
Wellcome Collection 2017, Tonics and curatives, viewed 12 September 2017, <https://wellcomecollection.org/articles/tonics-and-curatives>.
World Health Organisation 2017, Getting the message across: historical public health campaigns, viewed 1 September 2017, <http://www.who.int/who60/resources/posters/en/>.