Absences and presences: appreciating the power of the cartoon

Absences and presences: appreciating the power of the cartoon

By Rosalind Moran

Inked exhibition at the NLA

Cartoons are well-loved for their ability to capture moments in history, shine a light on the quirks and contradictions within us and around us, and puncture the spin of politics. Besides, some mornings one just needs a visual gag to offset the stress which comes of reading the headlines.

Inked: Australian Cartoons is a chronological exploration of cartooning in Australia, from the arrival of cartooning as an art form along with the First Fleet – which brought with it the mores and values of 18th century England – to the present day. Drawn from the library’s extensive collection of over 14,000 cartoons, the exhibition provides a series of snapshots of major events and social issues for Australians throughout our colonial and postcolonial history.

I enjoyed the exhibition. It was interesting to see how sacrilegious cartoons have always been, for all that ones dealing with contemporary issues typically seem closer to the bone for modern viewers. The presentation of cartooning as a long and celebrated tradition in Australia also rang true, not least because of Australia’s rough, often irreverent style of politics: it makes sense that such an art form would thrive here. Australians love cutting down tall poppies and rarely deify politicians. Cartoons and our continent are a match made in cynical heaven.

The exhibition’s chronological structure is also valuable for demonstrating how cartooning in Australia has evolved. Through a few select pieces, curator Guy Hansen has managed to convey how Australian cartoons began as satirical, comic illustrations, largely for entertainment alone, and gradually evolved into sophisticated social commentary. The exhibition also addresses how cartoons helped forge Australia’s national identity during the First World War, in which the image of the Australian soldier – the digger, the pragmatic larrakin – was consolidated. If Australia’s national visual identity was long synonymous with soldiers in slouch hats, the values of mateship and optimism, and associated mythology, we have cartoonists, in part, to acknowledge.

The exhibition commits considerable space to cartoons from 1780 to 1945, and for all I was enjoying looking at the cartoons and considering their historical context, I did begin to wonder about certain absences. Where were the Indigenous Australians? As for people of non-European descent, and women, these had only been portrayed through racist and sexist stereotypes thus far. Regrettably, this was to be expected given the context of these cartoons and Australia’s history – but I did begin to wonder when more socially conscious, questioning cartoons might appear.

Happily, I was not left wondering for long. No sooner had I begun thinking that I had yet to see a representation of an Indigenous Australian or of a non-subservient woman, than I came across a brilliant selection of cartoons interrogating the treatment of First Australians. Les Tanner’s cartoon Train Hard, Fight Hard and You May Get Initiated into the Great White Festival (1968) was especially incisive, as were Matthew Martin’s Progress (1988) and Ron Tandberg’s Repeat Offender (1996).

The evolution of our cartoonists’ understanding of race and racism in Australia was good to see. The exhibition first explores these themes through Linley Sambourne’s 1888 cartoon Outside, sir! Outside, which depicts a kangaroo and a young woman representative of the new colony shutting the door on a ‘Chinaman’, foreshadowing the White Australia Policy. By the end of the exhibition, however – and once past the racial stereotyping of the war propaganda cartoons – Australian cartoonists show themselves to be considerably more interrogative of xenophobia and stereotyping. Indeed, one of my favourite cartoons in the exhibition is Geoff Pryor’s The Ghost of White Australia (2001), which shows the doors of the White Australia policy crypt hanging open and the ghost of death floating away from the cemetery.

John Henry Chinner (1865-1933) The coming eclipse 1898 Pictures Collection
John Henry Chinner (1865-1933) The coming eclipse 1898 Pictures Collection

It was also positive to see the emphasis the exhibition placed on female cartoonists, who were largely absent in Australian print prior to the mid-20th century. Cartoonists such as Cathy Wilcox, Mary Leunig, and Judy Horacek are rightly celebrated not only for their astute social commentary and wit, but also for challenging the long unquestioned norm whereby the average person depicted in cartoons was a white man. The exhibition includes their cartoons both in the context of the creators being women, but also beyond this, which was encouraging to observe.

In summary, if you’ve an interest in cartoons, Australian history, politics, or the formation of our modern national identity – or simply enjoy a chuckle – Inked: Australian Cartoons is well worth visiting. Not only is it both entertaining and illuminating, but it also offers a positive visiting experience in and of itself. It’s a long time since I last went to an exhibition where people squinted at the walls and chortled to themselves.

What’s more, appreciating the cartoons alongside other people can help bring them to life in a way no Internet scroll can do. While I walked around the exhibition, for example, I passed an elderly man who pointed at an old political gag and exclaimed to a younger relative: “That was in the newspaper when I was a young tacker!”

Seeing his delight made me look twice at the image; and indeed, as I walked through the exhibition, I noticed several multi-generational groups explaining the significance of different cartoons to one another. Some people appeared curious, others enthused. Some had stories and some had opinions. All were engaged, however, which perhaps speaks not only to the power of exhibitions to engender discussion, but also to the power of cartoons. Cartoons are witty, condensed social commentary: quick to consume, hard to forget.

What a useful creative tool for getting people to engage with what is happening around them.

What a marvellous art form to celebrate.


Inked: Australian Cartoons is a free exhibition open until Sunday 21 July at the National Library of Australia. Free guided tours of the exhibition occur every Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday at 10.30am. The exhibition is family friendly and includes a Children’s Space and art corner.

One thought on “Absences and presences: appreciating the power of the cartoon

  1. I enjoyed this review Rosalind. I still haven’t gone to see the exhibition – funny how the easiest things to see are the ones you put off! I appreciated your observations about the gaps too – gaps that are historically explained, but gaps nonetheless. It’s important to note them, even if there is a “valid” reason for them, isn’t it.

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