The images that rocked politics in 2019

Jon Kudelka has been named the Australian Cartoonist of the Year as part of the Behind the Lines 2019 exhibition at the Museum of Australian Democracy (MoAD).

It’s a big challenge to capture 2019’s turbulent politics in a single exhibition, but as the Cartoonist of the Year, Jon Kudelka had to draw it in a single frame.

A multi-Walkely Award winning cartoonist at The Australian, Kudelka mastered the artform by drawing one cartoon every weekday for years. The exhibition puts him in good company with other cartoonists including David Pope, Cathy Wilcox and Mark Knight who are among the many talented cartoonists showcased this year.

Kudelka told ArtsHub from his Hobart home, ‘The process for a daily cartoonist is that you start off early in the day and you read everything you can find and then you let it sit for a while and then hopefully something will jump out as you your main topic for the day. Once you’ve nailed the topic it’s just a matter of making it as ridiculous as possible.’

He got to let his hair down with the greatest hits theme of this year’s exhibition because it let him re-imagine our politicians as a shambling rock band. Kudelka saw the change of leadership and the election campaign as great satirical fodder. ‘You do feel like ScoMo was the lead singer in a cover band because it seemed to be all the same old stuff done with a different lead singer, because they do keep on changing their singers all the time,’ he said.

‘It’s also just fun to draw the old beaten up Tarago,’ Kudelka added, alluding to the classic rock and roll tour bus.

He featured former Opposition leader Bill Shorten on a TV thrown out the window in a punkish tantrum, noting that Shorten’s successor, Anthony Albanese, is a pleasure to draw. ‘Albo’s got a great head for drawing – I’m all for it. The nose is quite enjoyable to draw … Once you pick a nice facial feature you can get them down very quickly.’

It’s a technique many cartoonists in the exhibition employ: focussing on a single feature and making it easy for an audience to identify the politician. Tony Abbott’s red swimmers were the classic way for cartoonists for to identify the former Prime Minister. Kudelka had to pay them homage in his cartoon, ‘We all miss him and his budgie smugglers very much. Their floating away from the hero image was my homage to Tony’s passing from public life.’

Recording the greatest hits of news

Behind the Lines is politics’ annual snapshot so it’s no surprise that the election was at the front of most artists’ minds. Some of the best cartoons in the exhibition capture the rise and fall of Bill Shorten or the last appearances of popular (with cartoonists at least) characters.

‘Christopher Pyne was actually constructed by a committee of cartoonists. He was a terrible loss to the profession of cartooning in many respects. He had a great head for it and he was always there with something you can easily satirise,’ Kudelka told ArtsHub.

Other headlines that dominated were poked at by cartoonist’s pens this year. Climate change features in several cartoons. Kudelka sees climate change as the significant issue of the last 12 months.

‘I think people are genuinely starting to get worried about climate change and our lack of action from the government and the lack of too much opposition by the Opposition. So I think that the political class being out of step with public sentiment is similar to marriage equality the year before,’ he explained.

Read: Craft as a political agent

As a reflection of the year, Behind the Lines also had to take in the the raids on journalists at the ABC and News Corp in June. Kudelka reflected that while they represented a threat to the free press, cartoonists are fortunate in how they can comment on it. 

‘If there was a [truly] free press we’d be less necessary. I think satire arose out of the need to sneak things under the radar. Saying one thing and meaning another is, you know, the ultimate way of pulling down the authoritarians,’ Kudelka said.

Ultimately Kudelka likes his work to speak for itself and won’t give away any secrets of his cartooning year – partly because he believes visitors to the exhibition should work it out for themselves.

‘One of my hard and fast rules is to not explain the cartoon. And if someone doesn’t get it, that’s perfectly fine, the world will not stop turning, but nonetheless, I’m not going ruin it for everyone by explaining it. A cartoon is an in-joke that’s for everyone.’

Behind the Lines 2019: The year’s best political cartoons opens 6 December at the Museum of Australian Democracy (MoAD) in Canberra.

George Dunford was Director of Content at ArtsHub, Screenhub and GamesHub (2019-2022). He has also written for Meanjin, The Big Issue, Lonely Planet, The Good Food Guide and others. He has worked in digital leadership roles in the cultural sector for more than 10 years including at the National Library of Australia, National Museum of Australia and the Wheeler Centre. He is currently employed by Museums Victoria and is a mentor in the CEO Digital Mentorship program working with Back to Back and Desart. You can follow him on Twitter: @Hack_packer