Zootopia

Posters from the urban jungle
Dell Gallery at QCA, Brisbane
2 April – 2 May 2005

Viva la Revolucion! Whether you’re after sexual, political or cultural revolution, it’s all here in Dell Gallery at Queensland College Art’s ‘Zootopia: Posters from the Urban Jungle’. The revolution lives on in the fluorescent poster paint and agitprop styling of this gathering of over one hundred and forty political posters from the heady era of student protests, rallies, marches and political subversion. A call to arms for a contemporary generation and a salute to a prior one, this exhibition encompasses posters on issues that are far from nostalgic and forgotten. By including work from the ’60s right up to last year, the curators have allowed the posters to contextualise and invigorate one another; those from the dawn of the political poster movement in Australia reinvigorated by the relevance of their contemporary successors, which in turn draw their strength from the energy and example of their forebears.

The first striking thing about Zootopia is the exhibition design. The walls are boldly painted black and red, and the posters are scattered along the walls from waist height to well above head height, recreating their actual positioning in their original locations. This adventurous presentation draws attention away from the posters’ location in an art gallery and manages to energise the space, decentring conventional expectations of art gallery exhibitions. Likewise, the hang, not chronological or artist-based but vaguely grouped according to social issue, the works appear in conceptual clumps that take vastly different aesthetic forms depending on the time and place of their creation. A media lounge and projection space on one wall further engage the viewer with historical and contemporary manifestations of the same kinds of concerns exhibited by the posters. From footage of Pope Alice’s first de-baptisation ceremony at the Gold Coast held last year, to the playable ‘Escape From Woomera’ videogame, this section ensures we know the issues are still relevant and capable of inciting emotional responses from the public.

Tailored to coincide with National Youth Week, the show aimed to excite interest one the part of a younger audience and one that seems tragically unengaged with its own cultural concerns. With government legislation and university restructuring a big issue at present, one can only hope this kind of exhibition alerts current students to the kinds of avenues open to them. By normalising protests and rallies in the past, voices were heard that today do not seem to be able to coordinate themselves into a coherent front. While many of the issues in the posters are still relevant or unresolved today, they carry with them an insistent energy and assertion of a position of protest, a renegade voice that refuses to succumb to the status quo, to be told what to do. With stencil art becoming more widely practised and recognised as a legitimate artform (and thus being taken more seriously), it seems this kind of political protest may have found its new medium.

Encompassing issues as widespread as AIDS, drug and alcohol abuse, war, government policy, women’s liberation, homosexuality, environmentalism and indigenous issues, ‘Zootopia’ showcases a culture of dissatisfaction but presents it in a valid, positive and accessible way. It shows that revolution need not be bloody, that there are creative ways to engage with social concerns and that an aesthetic outcome can be had. The curatorial team consisted of Queensland College of Art students, mentor curator Beth Jackson and the staff of Dell Gallery, Griffith Artworks and the State Library, from where most of these posters came. Many other inclusions came directly from the collections of those that made them or from people who were at the events and kept one for themselves. Many of these people were at the opening as well, and the energy and conversation at the full-day event including bands and workshops was impressive and inspiring. The involvement of the organisers (and most of the official speakers) with the issues and events in the posters make this show an exciting collaboration between those who were there and those who have been shaped by these events.

The stark, blank white wall as you leave the gallery with only the text ‘no posters allowed’ stencilled across it provides a poignant statement of the way things are and the wide open canvas the world is for rebellious engagement and political activism.