Wollongong in Posters
Wollongong in Posters: Art on a Telegraph Pole
8 July — 9 August, 2013
Panizzi Gallery, UOW Library
The exhibition, Wollongong in Posters: Art on a Telegraph Pole, presents the poster art of local print workshops of the 1980s-90s, chiefly Redback Graphix and Culla Graffix, who achieved strong street-level visibility and contributed a dynamic visual presence to promoting local cultural events, community-based rallies, film releases, and theatre productions, perhaps most memorably to the productions of the Theatre South company.
▾ Redback Graphix & Culla Graffix
▾ Theatre South: Wollongong's first professional theatre company
▾ The Connor Incident
▾ Exhibition Launch video
▾ Exhibition Launch photo gallery
▾ Poster gallery
▾ Exhibition Catalogue
▾ Media: ABC Illawarra | Illawarra Mercury | UOW TV
▾ Soundtrack: Babymachine
Wollongong during the 1980s was a city subject to transformation. In 1982, BHP - 'The Big Australian' - announced that, due to the world-wide recession and a downturn in the steel industry, it was cutting its workforce. In Wollongong, mass sackings saw 8,000 people lose their jobs, seemingly overnight. The high employment levels which the region enjoyed through to the end of the 1970s were dramatically cut, and by 1984 more than 15,000 locals were lining up for the dole. The percentage of unemployed youth quickly reached double figures, and with the job losses came industrial and social unrest, strikes, and protests, as unions and workers sought to secure a livelihood.
The incoming Hawke federal Labor government in 1983 responded with industry assistance packages, retraining schemes and start-up funding for businesses. Some of this money came the way of local artisans, including Redback Graphix, via cultural and welfare support groups such as Theatre South, the Migrant Resource Centre and Community Radio. The South Coast Labour Council and local unions also commissioned works. Redback Graphix was a recipient of government largesse at the time and used this to purchase equipment for the production of large, multi-coloured screen-printed posters.
Redback Graphix set up operations in the old kiosk on the beach at Stuart Park, Wollongong, during 1981. The two principal artists, Michael Callaghan and Gregor Cullen had attended Keira Boys High School and Wollongong West TAFE. Callaghan graduated in 1974 from the National Art School and Cullen from Alexander Mackie College of Advanced Education, Sydney, in 1979. Cullen began screen printing posters for community groups from the Darlinghurst Youth Centre in East Sydney. Callaghan went on to work with the Earthworks Poster Collective at the Tin Sheds, University of Sydney. Here the spirit of collectivism and free distribution of posters in support of worthy causes was promoted. This led to Callaghan launching Redback Graphix during a residency at Griffith University in 1979, creating an alternative design and advertising agency for the 'Left.' In 1980 he moved back to Wollongong, shortly thereafter joined by Cullen.
In an interview in 1981, Cullen outlined the rationale behind the setting up of Redback Graphix in this industrial centre, away from the Sydney metropolis. In August 1980, three groups had come together at the Wollongong Workers Club in a forum on 'Work and Art', organised by the Sydney Artworkers Union. They were the fledgling Redback Graphix, theatre group Bread and Circus, and independent film company Steel City Pictures. The success of the forum encouraged Redback to seek support from Wollongong City Council, who provided the rent-free building on the beach at North Wollongong.
As official Artists-in-Residence for the South Coast Labour Council in 1981, and Artists-in-Community until 1985, Callaghan and Cullen were to produce a number of posters and other material supporting the efforts of local workers and the union movement.
The death of Michael Callaghan in 2012 once again brought to notice the extraordinary output of the group during its relatively brief life. From late 1986 to 1997 Cullen mixed designing and printing posters and fine art prints with the demands of lecturing in printmaking, and later graphic design, at the University of Wollongong. More than 25 prints and posters were produced during this time, using the printmaking studio at the Faculty of Creative Arts. The last screen print to be made in the printmaking studio by Cullen was in 1997 using water based inks. The poster Heartland Politics was produced for the Illawarra Residents Against Toxic Environments.
With University of Wollongong support, the city's first professional theatre company came to life in June 1980, the brainchild of English Department lecturer Mr. Des Davis and his actress wife, Faye Montgomery. Theatre South started a new era in entertainment for Wollongong with the debut production of The Con Man on Thursday, July 3, 1980.
After five years of moving from venue to venue in search of a permanent home, the company arranged with Wollongong City Council to lease the former Coniston Community Hall for the grand annual sum of $1. The space was converted into a small professional theatre, and 'The Bridge Theatre' Coniston was officially opened in July 1985. Several years later, the Council transferred ownership of the Bridge to Theatre South outright.
Over the years, Theatre South presented a wonderfully rich and varied program of local, national, and overseas classics and modern works. Productions nurtured and showcased the talents of many Australian artists, playwrights, producers and designers, as well as those of visual and performing arts staff, students, and graduates from the University of Wollongong. After more than 23 years, and over 90 productions, the Theatre South company's lights went down for the last time in 2003.
During its time, Theatre South aimed to "put an end to Wollongong's reputation as a 'cultural desert', lacking an artistic heart." Its choice of plays was based on the three key premises: that the Illawarra regional community should be provided with the same quality in its theatre as metropolitan audiences; that regional artistic talents and skills should be explored and developed; and that the regional audience should be given access to the best that is current in Australian and local writing for the theatre.
In the same spirit of regionalism, Theatre South commissioned Redback Graphix and Culla Graffix to design many of its eye-catching posters. Wonderful examples displayed in the exhibition Wollongong in Posters include posters for the plays Windy Gully, Mother Courage and the rock opera Tommy. Other local designers were also commissioned to produce posters, and posters by Jim Muir (Say Goodbye to the Past), and Yanni Stumbles (of Seagull Posters and Lucifoil Poster Collective - A Change in the Weather) are included in the exhibition.
In July 1982, University of Wollongong academic, Glenn Mitchell, received a phone call from then Lord Mayor, Frank Arkell, demanding that he immediately take down posters put up around the city to promote an upcoming history conference in honour of Rex Connor, the highlight of which would be the attendance of former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. Arkell threatened Mitchell and the creators of the poster with legal action under the bill posting ordinances.
The poster, designed by Callaghan and Cullen of Redback Graphix, featured a multi-coloured portrait of former Whitlam government minister and local Labor member Rex Connor. Mitchell contacted the Connor family and advised them that Arkell did not like the posters of their father - who had died in 1977 - being put up around the city. They were outraged and advised the conference organisers to ignore the threat from Wollongong City Council and "Put up more posters!"
No legal action was subsequently taken by Council, though a number of posters which graced an awning in upper Crown Street Wollongong were defaced and the head of Connor removed, apparently by those who objected to his supposed portrayal as a scarf-wearing Godfather-like figure.
To Nick Southall and Gregor Cullen for contributing their memories and images to the narrative of this exhibition.
Director, Library Services, Margie Jantti, and guests, Gregor Cullen and David Rome, opened the Wollongong in Posters: Art on a Telegraph Pole exhibition on 8 July 2013.
- Anna Zagala, Redback Graphix, National Gallery of Australia, 2009, 128p.
- 'Curtain rises on new entertainment era', Campus News, University of Wollongong, June 1980, pp 1-4.
- 'Guide to the Theatre South Collection, D235, University Archives, University of Wollongong, 2012.
- Julianne Schultz, Julianne, Steel City Blues, Penguin Books, Ringwood, 1985, 282p.
- Mary Callaghan, Greetings from Wollongong, [colour film], 45 minues, Steel City Pictures, 1982.
- M. & T. Donaldson, The Crisis in the Steel Industry, Journal of Australian Political Economy, 14, 1983, pp 33-43.
- Mike Donaldson, 'Redback Graphix – Gregor Cullen interviewed by Mike Donaldson', Australian Left Review, 77, 1981.
- Nick Southall, 'WOW: the Wollongong Out of Workers' Union', Illawarra Unity, 6(1), 2006, 38-51.
- Nick Southall, 'The WOW factor: Wollongong's unemployed and the dispossession of class and history', Illawarra Unity, 8(1), 2008, 69-79.
- Nick Southall, 'Working for the class: the praxis of the Wollongong Out of Worker's Union, May 2011.
- Nick Southall, 'Michael Callaghan: Artist – Raconteur – Reader – Collector – Pleasure Seeker – Holder of Hearts', Illawarra Unity, 11(1), 2012, pp 91-7.
- Tom Zubrycki, Kemira : Diary of a Strike, [colour film], 63 minutes, Kemira Productions, 1984.