Arts / Wallpaper honours national leaders

WHAT’S in a wallpaper?

Alder’s new wallpaper

A great deal, according to printmaker, and head of Print Media and Drawing at the ANU School of Art, Alison Alder.

When Alder was commissioned during a fellowship with the late lamented Australian Prime Ministers Centre to produce large format posters of our first eight prime ministers, she got thinking about the women who were behind those political leaders. The wallpaper design had only featured the head of one of the wives, following the principle that “behind every great man is…”

Luckily, the Museum of Australian Democracy (MoAD) at Old Parliament House got wind of what was going on and offered to purchase the works to open its doors to a new exhibition called “onetoeight: Australia’s First Prime Ministers.”

Alison Alder, Alfred Deakin, screenprint on tissue 2016

At this point many readers will be grappling to remember whether the first Prime Minister was Alfred Deakin or Edmund Barton (it was Barton), but not to worry, Alder has devised a clever  MPs “term-o-meter” that shows who was in and who was out. Some of them like Deakin and Fisher, were Prime Minister three times.

“Things are so changeable then,” Alder says, “a bit like now.”

MoAD also proved a willing accomplice in papering the walls with Alder’s magnificent creation, rendered into digital format, and printed on a kind of adhesive paper that can be pulled off the heritage walls. The decorative wallpaper features our national flower, the wattle, legislated as such by Prime Minister Andrew Fisher, she notes.

Observant visitors to the exhibition will notice on close scrutiny that there is no picture of Prime Minister Watson’s wife. That’s because there is no extant photograph, so Alder had a bit of fun and put a youthful photograph of herself in to substitute for Ada Watson.

“I put myself there in an Alfred Hitchcock moment,” Alder tells “Citynews.”

“I couldn’t see things in black and white,” the artist explains. “I didn’t want to make political comments, so  I started to think about them as men.”

As she walks us around the exhibition, she reflects on both the human variety and the achievements of those men.

‘Vaudevillian’ Billy Hughes, by Alison Alder

Barton got votes for women. Deakin would be considered racist by present day standards, but he brought in the basic wage.  Chris Watson was the youngest and probably the most handsome. Joseph Cook was described as dour, humourless and irascible and Manning Clark said he developed the mantra “everyone for himself”.  George Reid was unfairly maligned because of his portliness. Andrew Fisher, whose wife was a suffragette, brought in the pension and workers compensation.  Billy Hughes seemed  “vaudevillian”, larger-than-life, though small, and the longest serving parliamentarian. And Stanley Bruce formed coalition with the Country Party.

Staff at the Prime Ministers Centre told Alder that every one of them achieved something.

“I worked on the prints last year then worked like a dog on the wallpaper and term-o-meter in summer,” Alder concludes.

The result is a fascinating exhibition backed by a fascinating wallpaper that demands close attention.

“onetoeight: Australia’s First Prime Ministers,” curated by Glenn Barkley and Holly Williams, at the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House, daily 9am–5pm.



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