This year has been one hell of a ride, and not in a good way. Between fires, plague and pestilence, as well as extraordinary political maelstrom, it could easily be described as a ‘dog’s breakfast’: that is, a right, royal mess.
It has, however, provided an incredible amount of fodder for the pens of Australian cartoonists (and no doubt of those the world over). It seems entirely reasonable then that this year’s annual exhibition of the best of Australian political cartoons, launched last Friday at the Museum of Australian Democracy (MOAD), bears that canine reference: Behind the Lines 2020: A Dog’s Breakfast.
I admire cartoonists greatly. Firstly their ability to draw, but also their ability to cut through a thick forest of complicated issues and emotions and deliver a succinct gut-punch with an image or two and a few deft words. Well, often much more than that (First Dog on the Moon—I’m looking at you) but you get the idea. As a lover of words who often struggles with verbosity, I admire that latter quality greatly, and as someone with no artistic ability, I admire the former quality even more.
The exhibition features 104 cartoon from 36 artists, which this year includes digital work as well. So little can tell so much. It takes us back through the crazy year that was revisiting some of the horrors and messes that befell us, and perhaps helps us make sense of it. Or perhaps not. It references:
a country on fire while the PM was MIA and the effects of climate change knocking very loudly, though some politicians and media worked hard to play that down;
politicians behaving very badly
and political corruption (sports rorts anyone?);
COVID shutdowns, working from home and struggles with mental health;
strange social phenomenons;
and so much more.
The works so often cut straight though to the heart of the matters, as distressing and infuriating that may be at times, and present us with the bald truth. They often expose the worst in us, particularly politicians no matter which side of the house they’re on, but thankfully also occasionally bring out the best in us: resilience among the mayhem.
The dog’s breakfast exhibition is cleverly curated into a number of themes, reinforced with some complementary doggy phrases and images and lots of poochy puns – digging for bones, what the pup, let off the leash. You get the picture.
The exhibition reminds me of a teacher from many decades ago, ahead of her times, who brought cartoons into class depicting the controversies and atrocities surrounding the Indonesian annexing of Timor and the killing of the Balibo Five in 1975. I didn’t fully understand then the powerful role those cartoonists were playing at a time when much was swept under the carpet and the importance of free speech and the role of journalism. In a year where attempts to restrict shut down or sideline investigations, stifle questions and prevent access to information have been rife, the freedom of expression displayed by cartoonists, along with their journalist colleagues, has never been more important.
This year’s gong went to Sydney cartoonist, Cathy Wilcox (her second), a Sydney-based cartoonist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Melbourne Age. Her work is brilliant: so much in so little. As Daryl Karp, Director of MOAD described at the launch, through her cartoons Cathy captured the momentous events of the year as seen by ordinary Australians.
The cartoon selected as best in house was so insightful, so emotive, so close to the painful bone that it didn’t even run in all papers across Australia. In Victoria, the heart of the disaster, it would have been just too much.
Dr Karl was there at the launch (no, I’m not going to attempt his last name – you know who I’m talking about) to try to make sense of the some of the science underpinning some of the happenings of the year. He provided a raft of interesting titbits from his bulging store of fascinating facts though I’m still not convinced anything can properly explain the toilet paper hoarding effect. And you do have to admire a man who co-ordinates his joyful shirts with his socks.
If you live in Canberra, get yourself to this exhibition for a perusal of 2020 and its various disasters and political freefall in pictorial precis. If you don’t live here, consider a trip just to check it out, or perhaps take a peek online. You don’t even have to hurry—it’s on for a whole year.
2020 has certainly been a doozy of a year, but we have to hang on to optimism for the next one. As Cathy Wilcox wrote on the book I just had to purchase containing the entire collection of cartoons from the exhibition, ‘Next year’s going to be great.’
If we cross our fingers very tightly …