Chips Mackinolty: Maintaining the rage - Art Collector

Issue 54, October - December 2010

Poster artist Chips Mackinolty has provided some of the most memorable images of a generation. Sasha Grishin takes a look at his recent win in the Togart Contemporary Art Prize and finds this artist’s sharp social conscience certainly hasn’t dulled with time.

When Chips Mackinolty was 15 he produced his first screenprinted poster with the simple lettering reading: “Is your school revolting? Join the student underground movement.” In it, a slightly sinister figure looks on from the top right hand corner. This was in 1969, while he was still at school.

In the 1970s many young people felt disillusioned with existing educational structures and the handed down wisdom of their elders which dragged them into the civil war in Vietnam. This is when a number of radical poster collectives formed, the most significant of which was the Earthworks Poster Collective which operated out of the Tin Sheds at the University of Sydney. The Whitlam era provided a short respite from a period of prevailing conservatism. Chips Mackinolty became one of the most active members of the Earthworks Poster Collective and following the dismissal of the Labor government produced one of the most iconic posters which defined a generation. A stencilled sneering face of prime minister Malcolm Fraser, shown against a background of a myriad of sneering Frasers, is sandwiched between the inscriptions “For the man who said life wasn’t meant to be easy” and “Make life impossible”. In 1976 the poster appeared on walls throughout Sydney and became one of the most identifiable images of the decade, helping to politicise a whole generation.

When Earthworks dissolved in 1979, many of its former members turned their attention to remote Aboriginal communities and worked for the Indigenous cause as art advisers, artists and activists fighting for the Aboriginal land rights. Mackinolty first moved to Townsville, where he found work as a community arts officer, and then to the Northern Territory where he worked as a community arts officer and then as an art adviser to Aboriginal art centres in Katherine (Mimi Aboriginal Arts and Crafts, 1981 to 1985) and Mutitjulu (Maruku Arts, 1985). Between 1985 and 1990 he worked at the Northern Land Council in Darwin as a journalist, designer and field officer. In 1990 he set up a graphic arts and research centre, Green Ant Publishing, with friends producing posters, t-shirts and books. He has also worked as an adviser to the Northern Territory Labor Government, 2002 to 2009, under various minsters, then worked for the Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance Northern Territory as a policy worker.

The problem with poster artists is that their work is frequently ephemeral and despite being published in editions of thousands the works are quickly consumed and difficult to trace. Chips Mackinolty was recognised as an exceptional artist with the National Gallery of Australia acquiring some 247 of his works and in August 2010 the Charles Darwin University Gallery staged its massive and brilliant exhibition Not dead yet: A retrospective exhibition of Therese Ritchie and Chips Mackinolty. From this exhibition he emerges as an exceptionally versatile, witty and provocative artist, a master of montage from the early direct screenprints to his more recent digital inkjet prints with their wonderful subtle melting colour hues. His is an art of total social commitment, one with a gift for the memorable image.

In September 2010 he was awarded the $15,000 Togart Contemporary Art Award for his striking digital inkjet print Neta, Darwin 1950, commenting with wit, beauty and elegance on live music in Darwin in an age which has long since vanished. On hearing of his win, Mackinolty’s immediate response was to return the cheque and to ask for the money to be redistributed to three struggling live music venues in the Northern Territory. •

The Togart Contemporary Art Award exhibition featuring Chips Mackinolty’s work will be on view at the Chan Contemporary Arts Space, Darwin until 7 October 2010.

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