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Referred Fysh Rutherford ›

Mimmo Cozzolino

Arriving in Melbourne as an Italian immigrant in the 1960s, Mimmo's perusal of assimilation lead him to a creative, varied career based in the investigation of Australian iconography, identity and cultural expression. The nostalgia, humour and self-exploration of Australia in the 1970s and 80s were documented in his publications, 'Symbols of Australia' and 'The Kevin Pappas Tear Out Postcard Book'. In 2001, Cozzolino left graphic design to focus on his photography and other forms of image-capture, culminating in his extensive series of autobiographic books.

Two of your most celebrated pieces of work - Symbols of Australia and The Kevin Pappas Tear Out Postcard Book - go beyond the quintessential 1970s and 80s Aussie aesthetic, they investigate that larrikinism, the self-deprecating, cultureless stereotype. Having emigrated here in the early 60s, what was your understanding of 'Being Aussie' that went into this work?

We came out to Australia when I had just turned 12. I was just beyond that stage where I could learn the language quickly. It took me 3 or 4 years to learn and gain confidence in speaking English but I also think I'm not very good at learning languages - I have tried to learn others and did not do very well. I have very vivid memories of life in Italy that, as a migrant, I had tried to repress. When you're a migrant all you want to do is fit in, mainly from the pressures at school, not the home. You hate standing out, even when the other kids had Vegemite sandwiches, I had tuna and tomato. I think that was the story with my early career although I only realised this later. Symbols of Australia was about fitting in, about having a grasp of the culture in an academic way - perhaps I wanted to prove I was fitting in well and that I knew more about my profession than my peers. I have never thought of myself as being highly ambitious but there was an element of one-upmanship; proving that I had arrived.

The desire to assimilate continued from childhood into your design work?

I think so, although it really only became clear to me after the Symbols book was published. I originally co-published the book with Penguin and with the release there was lots of media, heaps of radio and telly. I remember someone asked in one of these interviews - in the nicest way - 'How come a wog like you is interested in Aussie symbols?' Well you can see the sentiment - these sorts of topics are only delved into by dinky-di Aussies, not migrants. And I thought, well, this guy has a point - maybe I was trying to prove a point, but I didn't set out that way consciously. I thought trademarks were going to be my livelihood, and in the late 60s and 70s there was such a movement in corporate image, everything under the sun was being branded. At that point I was still a design student and the whole corporate identity field seemed a highly mysterious art. I could see it may be big business for a designer and I thought this was going to be part of my future. My curiosity in corporate identity led me to go looking for books on the topic yet I was dismayed to find that no such study existed on Australian symbols and trademarks. That's when I told myself that, one day, I would do one. Ten years later Symbols of Australia was published.

But first there was All Australian Graffiti...

All Australian Graffiti was an idea for a studio that began to germinate at art college with Con Aslanis. Con and I met at college when I was studying first year engineering and he was doing art and we became good friends. We were on the same wavelength, he emigrated from Greece a couple of years before me. We were, I guess, still experiencing the old culture we had brought with us. It was still fresh, and we could see the difference in attitude and interests here. We made a good team because our talents complemented each other: he was the imaginative partner, I put the ideas into practice and got the work in. Con had the vision. He was asking - why do we have to have Swiss design? Why not Australian? I couldn't agree more but at that time, that was a rather strange question to be posing. Swiss design was the avant-garde style to follow in the 60s and 70s. The majority of people practising here gained their cues from Swiss design and a few from work coming out of the West Coast (USA). There was a handful of people that I really looked up to as a student such as Alex Stitt, Bruce Weatherhead, Brian Sadgrove and Les Mason. While they also worked in these international styles, what I appreciated about their work was the strength and wackiness of their ideas.

So Con and I became partners and started up this informal design studio. At first I had a full time job as well. We worked at night on freelance work. Most of the work was pretty crappy but it made reasonable money - we were desperately trying to save money to go overseas. It seemed that every young person at that time was travelling to Europe - it was dubbed the 'hippie trail'. It took us about 3 years to save enough money to leave Australia. Eventually I arrived in Italy and I realised how wonderful Australia really was - it was very clear to me that my future lay here.

When I got back in 1975, we set up the studio more formally. Out of seven members, All Australian Graffiti had five members who had been born outside of Australia, yet we spruiked the concept of 'local produce'. The idea of emphasizing Australian content could also be easily translated into a promotional campaign. It was a very competitive time, there was a mini recession and my intuition told me we needed to differentiate ourselves from all the other studios in Melbourne. With very little work in our first year, we created self-promotional postcards and tried to sell them individually but it was hopeless. Then I got the idea to put 28 cards in a book. We mocked up the book, gave it a name - The Kevin Pappas Tear Out Postcard Book and took it to Penguin. A friend at Penguin introduced me to the editor who loved the idea.

Before we knew it, Kevin Pappas was on the bestseller list for 1977 after it sold 20 000 copies. I used the book to promote the studio. I mailed one to each of the 500 clients and potential clients on our mailing list. The response was phenomenal and then the work just started avalanching in. After a while the relentless pressure of deadlines and lack of business and people skills got the better of us; we were burnt out and I found myself on the verge of a nervous breakdown. It was time to call it quits. All Australian Graffiti lasted just a bit over three years. Fortunately we all managed to forge individual and relatively successful careers with what we had learned working in the studio.

It is a wonderful publication - I saw a copy while talking to Dominic Hofstede about Re:collection. Why do you think there was such a strong response to it?

The humour. The Kevin Pappas postcards touched a lot of 'haha' nerves but not in a threatening way. We could observe these absurdities. We kept the jokes clean, made fun of the Queen, the footy, sharks eating people, Holden cars, meat pies, wog food and blowflies. All Australian Graffiti was just one voice and there were quite a few others who were questioning what the hell we were culturally - was there an Australian identity? What did it mean to be Australian, especially if you hadn't been born here in the first place. The cultural reassessment was in the air already; the revival of our film industry; a developing Australian voice in literature and publishing; the sweeping political changes brought in by the Whitlam Government. These were part of a series of ripples that ten years later culminated in more national soul-searching around the 1988 Australian Bicentennial celebrations. At All Australian Graffiti we did our bit and it went into the cultural melting pot with all the rest.

That fact that you were a migrant of the 60s has - despite your efforts to assimilate! - become a cultural story that is so strongly linked with the Australian identity today.

My parents loved Australia. Their friends were always complaining about how much better it was back in Italy. But they got into it - Dad had a good job, Mum loved the countryside and open air - we came from a place where there was large population and no space. My parents were so positive about having made the journey. It was difficult, we had no-one else in Australia, no family, we had to build up friends and relationships from scratch but my parents always spoke well of Australia. They went back to Italy a few times and actually had the opportunity to move back but they chose to stay in Australia. They believed it was a wonderful country, still is a wonderful country. Dad was a letterpress machinist, a printer all his life. He emigrated for a better future for his three sons. He wasn't particularly well educated but as a printer he was generally pretty cluey - all that cultural output that he worked with meant he was informed and thought Australia would be a pretty good place to bring up a family.

Within the advertising industry at that time, there was the odd Italian or Greek but it was still a bit suss being a wog. Not the done thing. It was much later that we had Wogs Out of Work and 'Wog' became an endearing, not derogatory, term. Up till then if anyone had called me a wog I would have flattened them. One of the things that stood out as a migrant was that, by the first time I went back to Italy, (in 1974) my Italian had become quite rusty. I could hardly understand what people on Italian telly were raving on about. But then I started realising that most Italians (and Europeans, for that matter) have a way of talking philosophically about the world. We didn't have that here. It made me think that Europeans seemed more culturally aware. They really want to understand and discuss beyond simple terms.

All I heard when talking to other designers in Australia was the 'work was shithouse' or the 'work was great' - there nothing in between, no explanation, this dumb way of talking about things and I felt it needed to change. I have been saying it since the Symbols book came out, which is when I was being asked to talk to students about the value of research into Australian graphic design history. We can't just make marks; it's not just a business - it lives within the cultural sphere. Marks would have much more relevance, be so much richer, if we could talk about them as they impact upon culture or upon ourselves. I've noticed more design history/theory units have been coming into courses, looking at Australian design history than when I was a student.

The personal themes of Australian identity, iconograhy and cultural aesthetic have formed throughout your boyhood and your design career. Now, looking at your more recent photography work, they continue to do so.

I finished a Masters in Fine Arts/Photo Media at Monash earlier this year. I had always wanted to do it. I ended up looking at photographic autobiography - I have so many photographs, along with work that I have created, that even if I never take another photo it would probably still take me another 15 years to work through it. I am not that comfortable with words, much better with pictures and I was curious to explore this. My work privileges the visual over the textual because I believe that images speak to us in important and different ways from words. Western culture, on the other hand, seems to privilege text. The aphorism 'A picture is worth a thousand words' could be more usefully reframed as 'A picture can show us uniquely what one thousand words can.'

The conclusion of the Masters research was a series of 9 books, primarily photographic and primarily autobiographical. Over the next 4 or 5 years there is going to be more - perhaps as many as 25 more. It was so satisfying to get the first 9 done, no distraction, just thinking, designing and organising production. I believe the next couple of decades may be the swan song for the book as we know it so I like finishing off my career with a few more picture books.

And after all that?

I think once a designer, always a designer, but there's so much other stuff I am curious about; I hope to never retire. On the other hand, as I get older, I am just as happy to sit and drink a beer or a nice glass of vino and grill some red peppers and some Tasmanian mussels to share with my friends. Once a wog, always a wog.

www.mimmocozzolino.com.au

Images supplied by Mimmo Cozzolino who wishes to thank past partners and associates for allowing him to use their artwork/photographs in this article. Contributors retain all copyright in their work. In particular Mimmo acknowledges the contribution of Con Aslanis, Geoff Cook, Izi Marmur, Tony Ward, Neil Curtis, Meg Williams, Sue Romanin, Tim Handfield, Normana Wight, Bob Bourne, John Street, Helen Garner, Fysh Rutherford, Liz Gilliam, Rennie Ellis, Ilva Romanin, Gilles Terrier, Heather Cox, Mike Rutherford, Jeffrey Fisher, Phil Ellett, John Bassani and Felicity Locandro.