Posters (5), screen-prints on paper, designed and printed by Ralph Sawyer at Waterside Workers' Federation building, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, 1973-1985
Protest posters produced by Australian artists and designers during the 1970s and 1980s are some of the greatest examples of poster art produced anywhere in the world. (Peter Vincent, Up against the Wall, Sydney Morning Herald, Money p15, 15 October 2003). This period was a time of major social and political change in Australia following the Vietnam War, the lead up to and turbulent years following the dismissal of the Whitlam Labour Government in 1975, and the rise of the anti-nuclear, international peace, anti-apartheid, environmental and women's movements.
These posters by Ralph Sawyer (1925-2007) are part of a larger group of posters created while the designer was working as a waterside worker (wharfie) and trade union representative for the Waterside Workers Federation in Sydney. They were both designed and printed by Sawyer, in what his friend, textile designer George Hardwick, called the "clandestine above-ground, under-ground" print workshop located on the upper (fourth) floor of the Waterside Workers Federation building at 60 Sussex Street, Sydney. Although the Waterside Workers workshop was intended for the production of May Day and Labour Day banners and broad sheets, Sawyer deliberately expanded the studio into a four-colour printing facility.
Around this time, many similar print workshops were springing up in inner-city suburbs around Australia, but few were as covert as that operating out of the Waterside Worker's Federation building. For these independent and alternative media groups, screen printing was seen as an attractive medium because it was quick, cheap and easy to produce and did not require expensive technology or large premises. The Earthworks Poster Collective was established at the University of Sydney in the early 1970s, Co-Media in Adelaide in 1974, Redletter Community Workshop in Melbourne in 1979, Redback Graphix in Wollongong in 1980, Megalo Screenprint Incorporated in Canberra in 1980, Garage Graphix in Mt Druitt in 1981, and Another Planet Posters Collective in Melbourne in 1984.
Growing awareness of workplace safety during the 1980s drew attention to the health hazards associated with using toxic solvent-based screen-printing inks in poorly ventilated environments. This, together with the increasing availability of computers and computer-aided graphic design software from the mid-1980s, eventually led to the demise of what had become a lively independent poster art tradition in Australia, a demise that wasn't arrested with the introduction of water-based inks in the late 1980s.
Stylistically and politically, Sawyer's posters (which document the designer's political activism and his spontaneous artistic responses to the socio-political climate of the day) owe a debt to the logos, graphics and slogans of the African National Congress, South Africa's national liberation movement. Often hastily produced in response to current issues, they present a range of spontaneous, at times quite radical, responses to contemporary issues and were deliberately designed, with their bold graphic images and strong slogans, to rally mass public sentiment and to counter social inertia to these issues. The posters highlight Sawyer's commitment to, personal involvement in, and support for the environment, labour, peace and women's movements. They are poignant reminders of alternative public reactions to socio-political events occurring in Australia and globally during the 1970s and 80s.
Anne-Marie Van de Ven, Curator, 2007
Deborah Clark, ' Pictorial Picture Post', Art and Australia, Vol 31, No 4. p 462-464
Roger Butler, Poster Art in Australia: the streets as art galleries - walls sometimes speak, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 1993
Peter Vincent, 'Up against the wall', Sydney Morning Herald, Money, p12, 15 October, 2003.
Curatorial notes from meetings with the designer, members of his family, and his friend, George Hardwick, 2003-2006.
These posters have been donated to the Museum by the sister and brother-in-law of the artist, designer and printer, Ralph Sawyer. Ralph and his brother-in-law Tony Barker played in big jazz bands during the 1950s and 60s. His brother in law later became a book editor with Angus & Robertson and Editor of What Happened When: a Chronology of Australia from 1788 (Allen & Unwin).
Biography - Ralph (Bunk)Sawyer (1927-2007)
Prepared by Anne-Marie Van de Ven, 2007
1927: Born Matraville, South Sydney. Son of Gallipoli veteran and peace activist, Leonard Lynn Sawyer who worked at the Eveleigh Street rail workshop. Although Leonard Sawyer, the artist's father, never joined the Communist Party, he was interested in Communism and used to bring home the Soviet Today magazine. Ralph Sawyer's uncle, Ralph Sawyer Snr, also a Gallipoli veteran, travelled and performed with Australian wallpaper designer Florence Broadhurst through Asia in the 1920s.
1938: Ralph Sawyer (Jnr)'s) photo appears in the Daily Telegraph (Tues 30 Aug 1938) in his own home-made billy cart with wind sail.
1940s: Secures first job as copy boy with the Daily Telegraph which launches his career as an artist (used to draw stocking 'seams' on the back of the female staff's legs when stockings were in short supply in wartime Australia).
1944-45: Joins Communist Party of Australia
1945: Joins the army.
1947: Discharged from the army.
Attempts to enter East Sydney Technical College under Commonwealth Government Reconstruction Scheme but is unable to secure a place.
Joins his brother as an apprentice hairdresser in his East Sydney barber shop, located in the old Harp of Erin hotel (later the well known Watters Art Gallery in Riley Street, Surry Hills).
Plays in big bands. Nick-named 'Bunk' after the American jazz trumpeter, Bunk Johnston.
1955: Joins [Patrick Stevedoring] and becomes Waterside Workers Federation union delegate for 32 years.
1971: Founding member of the Socialist Party of Australia. Designs SPA logo.
: Meets acclaimed American singer and trade unionist, Paul Robeson while he was in Sydney. (Robeson sings on the steps of the Opera House before it opened in 1973).
1974: Paints Robeson's portrait.
1975: Robeson portrait features briefly as a 9x7' trade union banner during the 1975 Labour Day March (before it blew off the top of the car leading the parade).
Co-designs (with George Hardwick) the Union of Australian Women's peace poster for the first United Nations sanctioned International Women's Day on 8 March, 1975 (reprinted 1985)
1979: Goes onto Waterside Workers Union payroll for several weeks each year producing the annual May Day promotions in the art workshop of the Waterside Worker's Federation building at 60 Sussex Street, Sydney. Sawyer develops WWF art workshop into a four colour screen printing facility.
1977: Creates the banner marking the finishing line of the 'Hungry Mile Marathon', a fund-raising fun run organised by the Waterside Workers' Federation to raise funds to send the Australian water polo team to the 1978 Moscow Olympics.
ABC produces half hour documentary on Ralph Sawyer that was accompanied by the Life Story of Karl Marx animation by Bruce Petty. This program was repeated in the 'Moments in history' series on ABC TV in 2000.
1978: Radio National interview - the Sawyer Robeson story with Wendy Sharell as the interviewer.
Late 1970s: Travels with Brian Henderson, rugby player with St George (when they were on a 'winning streak') and member of the Printers' Union, to Russia.
1970s -1980s: Produces many political, protest and peace posters in the WWF workshop, including his infamous poster of Malcolm Fraser shortly after the dismissal of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam on 11 November, 1975.
Wins two international prizes for Peace poster design - one in Bonn, Germany the other in Moscow.
Jimmy O'Brien and Ralph Sawyer make big muffit heads of politicians and other people worn on the back of the Trade Union during May Day parades and also an 18ft high kangaroo for the Seaman's Union.
George Hardwick and Ralph Sawyer design t-shirt for the Camels soccer team, a group of young doctors from Prince Alfred Hospital.
Late 1980s/1990s: Paints series of portraits of his socialist 'heroes' - Fidel Castro, Chez Guevara, Lenin, Ho Chi Min, George Dimitrov and Mao Tse Tung. Produces cartoons for the Tribune and other newspapers.
1997: Works on the WWF mural wall at the Australian National Maritime Museum, Sydney.
2002-2006: Painting and working towards an exhibition of Australian landscape paintings. One painting and some design work created to support and raise funds for The Greens representative, Lee Rhiannon.
2007: Ralph Sawyer passed away.
Zanny Begg, 'Artists who walked the Hungry Mile', Green Left Weekly, 15 September, 1993.
Harry Black, 'Ralph Sawyer (1927-2007)', Obituary, The Guardian, 2 May, 2007.
Jim Donovan and Tony Barker, 'He used a political palette, Obituary, Sydney Morning Herald, 14 May 2007.
Ann Stephen and Andrew Reeves, Badges of Labour Banners of Pride: Aspects of Working Class Celebration, Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences with George Allen & Unwin, 1985.
Anne-Marie Van de Ven, curatorial notes from meetings with the designer, members of his family, and his friend, George Hardwick, 2003-2006.