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11 May 2023

What it means to be ‘Aussie’ explored in new poster exhibition

Revitalising what it means to be ‘Aussie’, shaping conversations regarding Australian identity and fostering human connection through art, are the aims of Aussie: Posters by Peter Drew, a new exhibition now open at the National Museum of Australia in Canberra.

Showcasing the work of renowned Australian artist Peter Drew, the exhibition explores diversity and exclusion through a series of posters that feature archival photographs of individuals who applied last century for exemption from the then Australian government’s dictation test.

The original images that came with these applications were preserved in the National Archives of Australia. Mr Drew has taken these archival images and created street art posters by overlaying them with the word AUSSIE.

National Museum director, Dr Mathew Trinca, recognised the crucial role art plays in challenging people and raising important conversations.

‘This exhibition is truly stirring. It grapples with some contentious moments from Australian history and will challenge you to consider notions of nationality, identity and social cohesion,’ Dr Trinca said.

‘I’d like to thank Peter Drew for his tremendous contribution and commend him for these powerful artworks.’

Peter Drew has been displaying these posters on the walls of Australian cities and towns since 2016 and inviting passers-by to look them in the eye to discover the stories behind the faces.

The individuals featured on the posters had sought exemption from the dictation test applied to non-British migrants entering Australia after 1901.

At the time, the aim of the Commonwealth Immigration Restriction Act, or White Australia policy, was to limit non-white, particularly Asian, migration to Australia. To be granted entry to Australia, applicants had to write 50 words in a language of the Immigration Officer’s choice.

The individuals featured in Mr Drew’s posters were Australian born or had lived here for many years. To travel overseas and not be subject to the dictation test upon their return, they had to apply for an exemption or else they faced having their re-entry rejected.

Mr Drew said his posters were his response to rising racism and xenophobia in Australian public culture.

‘I like exhibiting art on the street because public space is a great equaliser, an ancient forum, and it allows people to connect in a very raw way,’ Mr Drew said.

‘Ultimately the posters are an opportunity for people on the street to identify with the people in the posters. When we gaze upon the other and feel their gaze returned, we recognise oneself within the other and, for a moment, all boundaries dissolve. That’s my aim,’ Mr Drew said.

The exhibition will be on display in the Mezzanine Gallery at the National Museum of Australia from 11 May 2023.

Feature posters:

Monga Khan 1916

Muslim hawker Monga Khan arrived in Victoria in 1895 and travelled around Melbourne, Ballarat, Beaufort and Ararat selling local and imported goods. In 1916, aged 46 years and in poor health, he applied for exemption from the dictation test so he could visit his family in British India (present-day Pakistan).

Supporters vouched that Khan was ‘honest and industrious, sober and most respectful’. The exemption was granted, allowing him to return to Australia and continue his business. He died in Ararat in 1930.

Bejan Dervish 1890

Born in Baluchistan, now in Pakistan, Bejah Dervish came to Australia to work as a cameleer. In 1896 he managed the camels used for transport on the gruelling Calvert Scientific Expedition to the Great Sandy Desert of north-central Western Australia. After, Bejah settled in Marree, a railhead near Lake Eyre in South Australia with a large cameleer community and Australia’s first mosque. In 1930 Bejah retired to grow date palms. He died in 1957.

Nellie Chin 1929

Nellie Chin was 26 years old when she sought exemption from the dictation test in 1929. She planned to travel to China from Cairns, Queensland, with her infant daughter Phoebe. They returned in 1930.

Kishner 1909

Kishner of Aloomba, near Cairns in Queensland, applied for exemption from the dictation test when he left Australia in 1909. A Hindu born in Judialla, India, Kishner was 31 years old. He returned from India in 1913. His file in the National Archives of Australia contains his photograph and ink prints of his left hand.

Moolah 1909

Moolah was living in Cairns, Queensland when he applied for exemption from the dictation test in 1909. He planned to visit India, where he had been born 30 years earlier. Moolah returned via Townsville in 1916. His file includes his palm and thumb prints, along with a note that he had paid the £1 application fee.

Kanichi Shiosaki 1931

Born on Thursday Island in Queensland, 22-year-old Kanichi Shiosaki sought exemption from the dictation test in 1931 so he could travel to Japan. His return to Australia was not recorded.

Jenny Sam War 1909

Nine-month-old Jenny Sam War was included on her mother’s exemption application in 1909. Jenny Ah See was 26 and planning to travel to China with her 41-year-old husband Sam War, and their three children Marnie, Sam and Jenny. Both Jenny Ah See and Sam War senior had been born in Canton (present-day Guangzhou). Sam returned to their home in Warwick, Queensland, later in 1909. Jenny and the children came back in 1912.

Sing Quay 1921

Born in Kairi, Queensland, 5-year-old Sing Quay’s application for exemption includes his small handprint, alongside Chinese characters in blue pencil. He travelled with Mrs Ah Hoc Sow Choy, and 7-year-old Yet Quay. They returned to Cairns from China in 1923.

Amy Lee Gow 1917

Amy Lee Gow was born in Ravenswood, Queensland. She was 13 years old when she applied for exemption from the dictation test in 1917, in preparation for a trip to China from Townsville in early January 1918. Her brothers George Lee Gow, aged 16, and Joe Lee Gow, aged 12, also applied successfully for exemption and embarked on the same ship. Amy’s exemption was extended from the usual three years and she returned to Sydney in 1927.

May Ah Cum 1921

May Ah Cum from Aloomba, Queensland, was 11 years old when she applied for exemption from the dictation test in 1921, before leaving for China in early 1922. Bessie Ah Cum aged 7, Joseph aged 15 and Charles aged 17, probably May’s sister and brothers, also applied and travelled on the same ship. Joseph and Charles returned after a couple of years and May came back at the end of 1928. Bessie did not return until 1937.

Jane Mary Low Choy 1927

Born in Cooktown, Queensland, Jane Mary Low Choy applied for exemption from the dictation test in late 1927. She travelled from Cairns to China, returning in the middle of 1928.

Gum Yook Lee and Charlie Lee 1922

Gum Yook Lee travelled with her infant son Charlie to China from Cairns, Queensland, in 1922. They returned five months later. Charlie had been born in Cairns, his mother in Brock’s Creek, Northern Territory. On the exemption application, Charlie left his tiny handprint, his mother her thumbprints.

Media Contact: Matthew Heap 02 6208 5006 | 0459 949 172 or

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