Where did I come from?
The History of Inkahoots
Inkahoots was the bouncing result of a planned pregnancy between two ideas.
Idea #1: creative political expression
Idea #2: creative self management
Throughout the nineteen eighties in Brisbane, these two ideas had parented several community based theatre companies, artist run studios, printing presses, bookshops, restaurants, galleries and some accidental progeny of dubious ilk. One reason for this proliferation was environmental. Conditions were perfect in this warm political climate of rampant conservatism and institutionalised corruption. New bodies of thought were being overfed on shocking revelations about the state of Queensland. Dissent in the community was all part of the dynamic equilibrium of the times, but had now reached a critical mass. We knew, we all knew, that the ruling National Party would soon, sometime soon, have to fall.
In 1989, an inner-city housing crisis in Brisbane had prompted the Tenants’ Union of Queensland to undertake a major community poster project that would address issues of accommodation from the perspectives of women, Aboriginal people, young people, people with disabilities, community housing co-ops, ethnic communities and other disadvantaged groups. This project brought together three artists, each with a dominant social action gene encoded within their DNA; Robyn McDonald, Chris Stannard and Geoff Heller. Before the Tenants’ Union project was finished, we’d conceived our own future as an artists’ collective and began gathering support for a community access screenprinting and design studio. Young artist, Suzi Blackwell and ACTU Arts Officer, Dee Martin quickly jumped into bed with us and, after much bonding and nest building, we all became pregnant with our love child, Inkahoots.
In December 1989, bang in the middle of Inkahoots’ nine month gestation, while we waited for funding from the Australia Council, the National Party lost government in Queensland. Inkahoots, the youngest of all its siblings, was the first left wing, artist run organisation to emerge on the scene after the end of the Bjelke Petersen Era. And boy, did it get a dose of royal jelly! Even before the opening party of 30 March 1990, Inkahoots’ studio was the venue for preparations for the Labour Day parade, Lesbian and Gay Pride Week celebrations, Reclaim the Night, Access Arts workshops for people with disabilities and we had a major new poster project planned with the Australian Conservation Council looming on the calendar. Some-how, in all the confused activity that follows a political watershed, Inkahoots was alive and kicking, housed in a $50 a week, concrete basement owned by the Transport Workers’ Union, last used to store and issue food rations to striking SEQEB workers in 1984.
The formative years of Inkahoots were exciting times. Though sometimes impetuous (as when we’d all down tools to collaborate on a poster under the psudonym ‘Corporate Art Terrorists’) and sometimes foolhardy (as when we’d allow the studio to be taken over for four days by Livid Festival organisers, their children and their dogs) Inkahoots struggled on. It’s true god-parents, the community, provided a stimulating moral grounding for the studio’s early development. The work we did as artists was extraordinarily rewarding. All social movements were again in progressive motion, and most of them, at some time or other, would move through our studio doors.
Imagine, if you will, a day that starts with activist and Senator, George Georges and friends wrestling the screen printing table, trying to squeeze out 300 posters for the Palm Sunday Peace Rally, followed by artist, Mark Crocker creating another of his exquisite and meticulous limited editions, while the designers discuss briefs with the Queensland Anti- discrimination Commission (can we represent disabled people using images of Greek statues?). Meanwhile, there’s a non-ticketed courier on the phone complaining that he can’t deliver a package because our landlord, the Transport Workers Union, turned him away at the door.
Needless to say, we quickly acquired a worldly knowledge of the issues of the day. However, after eighteen months, we had learned little about how to run a business. Collective members were still on low wages and we had no idea if we could afford to raise them, buy our first computer or ditch our funding bodies. While the Regional Galleries Association of Queensland was conducting a controversial statewide touring exhibition of 50 artworks from our first two years of operation, we were just sitting down to do our first business plan. Just as a sustainable working life was finally becoming a reality for Inkahoots’ artists, some brave regional gallery directors were putting their own jobs on the line in defense of an exhibition that lampooned conservative politicians, pressed on issues like land rights and worst of all, showed men kissing men and women kissing women!
The result of the touring exhibition was that Inkahoots’ profile was extended across Queensland. It also had a motivating influence on artists in the regional cities of Cairns and Townsville who were also testing the limits of social and political expression within their own communities.
In 1994, the Brisbane City Council came down hard on bill posters. Signage laws that had seldom been enforced with any real rigor, were dusted off and put to work at cleaning up the city’s image. Bill posters were prosecuted. Consequently, no one wanted to produce posters for the streets any longer. Advances in technology made offset printing more affordable for community groups. More and more, Inkahoots’ core work became taking on commissioned projects to produce advocacy material such as flyers, books, games, kits and visual identity. Large run posters were designed for offices and inside public buildings rather than for the streets.
It was around this time that young designer, Jason Grant joined the collective. Being, as he was, the first member of staff ever to have had any formal training in graphic design, he brought with him a sophisticated visual vocabulary that complemented our maturing political intellect. With a renewed confidence in our design abilities and as production budgets became more comfortable, slowly, the studio earned its reputation for innovative design. However, without a street level profile, our need to engage directly with the community was not being met.
Ironically, it was the Brisbane City Council itself that provided the venue for our next exhibition of political posters, designed and screenprinted in limited editions by eleven artists. Again we felt the awful tension between freedom of expression and public sensitivities when a censorship issue threatened to remove the exhibition from the Brisbane City Gallery. This time it wasn’t just kissing. It was the explicit depiction of oral sex. The battle was painful and ugly. Caught between two angry and determined artists, a worried Council administration and a confused and divided project team, Inkahoots reached a compromise. Some say we lost our innocence.
That was the last time Inkahoots sought government assistance for any of its projects. Stacked up against digital technology and offset printing, manual screenprinting seemed out-moded both as an artform and as an effective form of mass production. Within months, we had packed up the community access screenprinting equipment and sent it off to Cairns City Council where it was given its own purpose built studio in the grounds of the Tanks Arts Complex. After five years of operation from a concrete basement, with ratty furniture, poor ventilation and little natural light, it was time to move on.
Inkahoots’ second home was in a small, wooden studio in West End. We got kitted out with the latest digital design tools, air conditioned the place, bought a set of matching crockery and made ourselves comfortable.
We also cut the apron strings. At a general meeting, Inkahoots formally wound up as a company limited by guarantee and became a partnership of current employees, Robyn McDonald and Jason Grant. Long standing member and supporter, Teresa Jordan said at the time, “This feels so right. Inkahoots is all grown up now. The workers should run this place by them-selves; they deserve it. The Committee’s job is over.”
For the next three years, Inkahoots artists worked hard, in an ever more competitive field, to deliver a unique service to the community, cultural and government sectors. While other design studios fought for the advertising dollar, Inkahoots focused on understanding and communicating ideas, advocating changes in attitude, presenting information that is helpful in a pluralist society – aiming for genuine collaboration between artist and community worker, artist and environmentalist, artist and youth worker. Inkahoots had well and truly found its feet as an independently viable concern with community expression as its core business.
coming of age
Just when it seemed that nothing could go wrong, at 2am Monday 21 September 1998, Inkahoots burned down. A serial arsonist had pushed a rubbish bin underneath the building, set it alight and simply walked away. Nothing survived. All the computers, all the furniture, all the archived posters, all the memorabilia went to black.
This was the biggest test of Inkahoots’ mettle and the biggest test of client loyalty. In the months it took to rebuild the studio and replace all the equipment, none of Inkahoots’ clients withdrew their commissions and none were let down. The incredible support that Inkahoots had earned over the years turned the event from a disaster into a new beginning.
Inkahoots is a primordial multimedia organism, still dedicated to the principles on which it was founded, still willing to down tools and attend an anti-racism rally armed with thousands of bumper stickers (that had been tacked onto the side of a client’s print run) and still ready as ever to take on the challenge that faces us all; the challenge to create a better way of thinking about things.
Chris Stannard 2000