The artist’s story of how the Stop Jabiluka hand symbol was designed and grew to become a symbol for the anti-nuclear movement.
In 1996 I was in Jabiru in the Northern Territory. A community campaign to stop further uranium mining in Mirrar country was on the rise. Energy Resources of Australia (ERA) already operated the Ranger mine surrounded by Kakadu National Park and were pushing the Mirrar people to agree to another mine on their traditional lands at Jabiluka.
Others in the room from FoE, ACF, ECNT and Gundjehmi were weighing up the pros and cons of a non-violent blockade as many of the procedural avenues of resistance were nearly exhausted. There was a need to galvanise the various pockets of support to form a collective force, in solidarity with and led by, the Mirrar Traditional Owners.
Throughout my involvement with FoE I have made banners, cartoons, stickers, posters and flyers to communicate our environment and social justice activities and aspirations. I had especially gravitated towards the anti-uranium cause, believing it necessary to begin at home to help stop the deadly spin-offs of the nuclear industry.
It made sense to convince Australians that we should not be involved in any part of this process. This is where we dig up the uranium that ultimately generates nuclear waste, but by exercising our democratic rights it is also where we can hope to make a difference.
Sitting in Jabiru considering the images used before in anti-nuclear campaigns I thought of the Smiling Sun that originated in Europe and was adopted worldwide as a positive promoter of solar technology and a rejection of nuclear energy. Created in the seventies it maintained its cute “retro” appeal but its real strength was its collective use by the communities who fought the anti-nuclear fight. They had brought it to life. No one group was seen to claim it once in circulation. The text encircling the graphic changed to suit the aspect of the campaign it promoted and appeared in many languages.
The graphic for the Jabiluka campaign needed to be simple and unmistakably reject the nuclear threat. It needed to be easily reproduced – by printers, campaigners, banner painters and kids. It needed to relate to the Traditional Owners story and to the anti-nuclear tradition. The colours of the Aboriginal flag, created by Harold Thomas in 1971, seemed powerful and logical, resonating a call for solidarity with the first nations of Australia. This choice was bolstered by the happy coincidence that the Smiling Sun shared the yellow, red and black and connected it to our own history in the environment movement. Respecting Harold Thomas’s pivotal contribution to the symbolic heritage of Australia, Gundjehmi contacted him asking permission to build on this foundation.
That the representation of a human hand has universal symbolic power is evident in the earliest mark-making. Aboriginal hand stencils on the rocks of Kakadu are a testament to this, their unbroken significance a fact of life for the Mirrar and other Aboriginal people. Contemporary images of hands maintain their wealth of meanings and ability to communicate directly and the outstretched hand showing a palm denotes STOP in many cultures.
The idea of the inherent danger of the nuclear industry was easily gleaned from their own hieroglyphic for hazard, a divided yellow circle radiating out from a central core. I put together the first version of the black handprint impressed upon the radiation symbol in a Jabiru room adjoining the blockade discussion and the image was immediately welcomed by those next door.
It worked specifically for the Mirrar’s struggle but its message was universal too – of community resistance and rejection of any nuclear threat: uranium mining, nuclear reactors, weapons and waste.
Originally the FoE Anti-Uranium collective made simple paper stickers and later more substantial campaign materials using the hand image and it took off from there. Requests came from far and wide to use the image in Jabiluka campaign paraphernalia, web-sites, publications and fundraising initiatives as the blockade gathered steam. One of my proudest moments remains seeing the hand symbol unfurled on a giant banner dwarfed by Kakadu’s overwhelming escarpment.
The image was progressively applied more broadly from domestic campaigning against reactors, dumps and other uranium mines to appearing on the sails of a Pacific peace flotilla and at actions in places as far flung as Argentina, the UK and the Netherlands.
The requests I made, as artist and copyright holder, were that:
- the hand image be used freely by community and campaigners in their anti-nuclear work but not for commercial benefit.
- the text encircling the design only contain campaign messages, not the names of specific groups in a branding exercise. The idea needs to be owned by the community, not for a single group to appropriate for their logo.
The power of the symbol has grown from its acceptance by people wanting to signal their support for Mirrar and for other antinuclear causes. It has become a vehicle for an unequivocal anti-nuclear message.
Marcel Duchamp said “the creative act is not performed by the artist alone” and as the artist who developed the image, I know that mine was a small contribution to a huge collective creative effort.
The recent reclaiming of Mirrar control of their land at Jabiluka is a stunning result of a hard fought campaign. I designed an image but the anti-nuclear movement has taken the hand symbol and generated an icon – an enduring symbol of resistance and a simultaneous celebration of community.
This article is an excerpt from the book ’30 years of Creative Resistance’ by Friends of the Earth (Australia). For the full digital copy of book download PDF below. The hard copy of the book can be purchased from the FOE shop.
- Aboriginal Australians
- Campaigning - Grassroots
- Creative tactics
- Friends of the Earth Australia (Organisation)
- Graphic design
- Movements_Campaigns - Anti nuclear