Dr Alex Burchmore1
1Australian National University, Canberra, Australia
The unfolding narrative of Australia’s diplomatic relationship with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) from 1972 to the present is a heroic tale of population movements, demographic change, and easing racial tensions. A more intimate aspect of this narrative can be found, however, in the extensive but under-acknowledged collection of Chinese Communist Party posters held by the National Gallery of Australia (NGA), Canberra. Letters and other documents in the NGA’s archives reveal that these posters were purchased between 1975 and 1989 at the request of founding Director James Mollison, by key figures in the development of diplomatic and cultural relations with the PRC, including former Cultural Counsellor Professor Jocelyn Chey, OAM, and Professor John Clark. The posters and the record of their acquisition offer a counter-narrative to the public processes of relationship-building and knowledge-gathering. Though ephemeral, mass-produced and low in value, their cultural worth is inestimable as records of multiple lived connections with China, parallel but external to official channels of exchange. Recent exhibitions of ephemeral material, such as ‘Waving the Red Flag: Chinese Posters 1949-1976’ (18 July 2017-2 February 2018) at the National Library of Australia, Canberra, as well as artistic projects like Yang Zhichao’s Chinese Bible and Song Dong’s Waste Not, have demonstrated the rich and varied understandings of the past that ephemera can offer. I contend that the character of future relationships with Asia can also be traced in such material, enriching and complicating the grand spectacle of geopolitics with an awareness of everyday meaning-making and mutual discovery.
Dr. Alex Burchmore is a Sessional Lecturer with the ANU’s Centre for Art History and Art Theory. His PhD research focused on Chinese contemporary artists’ use of porcelain to communicate transcultural narratives of history and identity, while his broader research interests include Chinese-Australian art and trans-historical patterns of artistic exchange.