On 19 October 2001, a boat carrying about 400 asylum seekers made for Australia. It was grossly overloaded. It foundered and sank.
Almost all the people on board – mostly women and children – drowned.
The signature work in the exhibition was an array of 153 panels, each 20 cm square, showing the drowning and the drowned. Each panel represents one person who drowned. It would need to be more than twice as big to represent the 353 people who drowned that night.
Asylum seekers detained on Nauru have written hundreds of desperate, tragic letters to Australians. Many of these were on display in the gallery. Many people who visited the exhibition browsed casually through these letters and, when they realised what they were reading, were reduced to tears.
Two smaller works continued the theme of the signature work: they show another 34 of the people who drowned when SIEV X sank on 19 October 2001. Its presence was known to Australia, it sank in the surveillance zone of Australia’s Operation Relex, but Australia did nothing to rescue the people on board who, over the next 36 hours, drowned.
Most of the people who drowned when SIEV X sank were women and children, desperately trying to join their husbands and fathers who had already obtained refugee protection in Australia. The Temporary Protection Visa regime prevents family reunions, so the families tried to come here with the help of people smugglers. And they died.
Let’s start with a lie and a little wishful thinking. My lie takes us back to August 2001.
The very, very deservedly right honourable Mr Ruddock is on the deck of the MV Tampa, clasping hands with Arne Rinnan and brimming with one of those beatific smiles we’ve come to love, while he waves his magic wand of welcome and condolence over the hundreds of hurt and broken families that have appealed to Australia in most desperate circumstances.
Mr Ruddock is world renowned as the Minister for joy and justice, and his department is his message stick extolling the benefits that refugees bring with them as they revivify the diminishing pool of youth and skills in the countryside. “Refugees are often the best and brightest, bring them on”, he says.
Now, I’ll switch to the truth and how I got here. Three years ago the tiny Indonesian tub the Palapa began taking on water. It’s distraught cargo of 438 mostly Afghan families and teenage boys were making their last prayers when the Norwegian ship, the noble MV Tampa came into view and proceeded to rescue every last one of them. The sailors could not believe how many there were. My friend Mohammed Mahdi had 435 written in felt pen on his hand as they assembled on deck, three more followed, while the Palappa broke up and sank before their very eyes.
Captain Arne Rinnan having expected only about 80 asylum seekers on such a small vessel, despaired of the condition of the people on his deck, they all got food-poisoning and defecated wherever they could, they fell in and out of consciousness, pregnant women especially. Still Mr Howard refused to send a doctor. He sent the SAS who prevented the Captain speaking to journalists or even Justice North in the court in which my husband fought the Government in the Tampa case. He won (the first round).
Our Government rewarded the Tampa Captain with the threat of charges of “people smuggling” and after about 10 burning days the worn out rescuees were disgorged with the aid of lies and threats into the lowest and most frightening equipment holds in the bowels of the vast troop ship, the Manoora. They spent another tortuous 23 days there, while the accommodation facilities of the ship went unoccupied.
The lawyer’s win in court was appealed by the Government and the grotesque new “Pacific solution” was spawned. Australia’s reputation as an honest broker of the refugees’ convention was now dismembered.
I decided on two projects to set up “Spare Rooms for Refugees.com”; a web based register of people so concerned that they would offer their spare rooms temporarily to refugees who were being unceremoniously dumped from our camps. (It works.) And that while the wire fences were being erected on Nauru, I would try to contact the detainee in an effort to sponsor refugees. I did manage to get letters in, and I contacted a migration agent and lawyer. Letters and faxes went back and forth. Mohammed Mahdi was my invaluable source. I learned of the conditions there, we gathered the names and needs of detainees, and I would bully people in Canberra on their behalves. I was now receiving bundles of letters.
The Four Corners program asked me to help the BBC’s Sarah Macdonald who was making an hour-long piece on the “Pacific Solution”. It was dismaying to hear that they regarded me as knowledgeable, the only thing I knew was about a long but legal way into Nauru.
Sarah impressed me within 15 minutes by saying dryly “the BBC is fascinated by your country’s appalling politics, it’s so corrupt, it reminds us of the last days of the John Major Government in Britain” – I liked her, immediately. We made plans and set off within two weeks, disguised as “housewives”.
I had never imagined that in June 2002 I would circumvent Nauru’s visa bans, and fly from New Zealand to Fiji, Kiribas, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Kiribas, Fiji, New Zealand and back home again, just to get three days on the ground in Nauru as a transit passenger. My adventure with this undercover BBC journalist meant that we wore secret cameras. I was to get her into the camps. I had letters, contacts, gifts, toys and confidence in Mohammed. Nothing prepared me for the size of the monstrous construction known as “Topside Camp”. Try to imagine a makeshift town compressed into what felt like a baking tray. It was still in construction, Australian workers on $5,000 a week were all over it, the generator alone was bigger than a house, and was only installed after five months. Try to imagine the dark, the lack of water and food. Stumbling to find the toilet block and finding it through smell – the humiliating unflushable toilets were disgrace enough, without the sickness they caused. At the peak of its operation 1200 people lived in that one camp, the rest, the Iraqis lived in Statehouse, about 350 of them. Nauru is mostly blinding white rock, which intensifies the heat and repels rain clouds, its climate is unique, even at the equator. In Topside a child’s playground was installed for the 200 children there, no child used it, they would be turned into crisps. But that wouldn’t interest the I.O.M., the International Organization for Migration, who ran the camp. As its manager said to a psychiatrist who was urging various reforms there “the IOM is just a whorehouse”.
Indeed, their business was how to turn detainees into dollars. The IOM live luxuriously at the Hotel Menen, rarely visiting the camps, they had two sets of security guards, Chubb inside the camps, APS outside them. They entertained themselves lavishly. We went to their weekly party complete with dancing girls, groaning smorgasbord and open bar tab. Mr Ruddock must have hated their endless invoices. The Nauruans hated their princely presence.
On the Saturday night I saw a windscreen smashed with fists and cans, the drivers who were sitting there were not unsurprised (every windscreen there is smashed) and simply drove off. The Nauruan chant in the background was “I hate Australians and all whites”. Why not?
The so-called Nauruan public service works only on detention centre business.
Detainees are piled into their gaol without charge. The IOM and the Consul-General of Australia threatened us with that gaol, too, if they suspected we were violating our visa restrictions. They told us that detainees are held naked in Nauru’s prison (to prevent suicides) which was a nice touch. They did arrest me eventually, but I was unarrested when I became very irritating saying rather grandly that I was the wife of a QC, and were they aware of Article 5 of the Nauru Constitution? I was wearing a white Armani georgette dress, deliberately, I didn’t think they’d dare mess it up – and they didn’t. I was too blonde, too white and too loaded with goodie-two-shoe toys and sweets.
The seven foot manager of the IOM, Cy Winter, assaulted me, actually when he realised that in spite of his orders I was not gaoled. I wasn’t hurt seriously and it’s only interesting in that it indicates, what licence the IOM gives itself. It is the law in Nauru.
Nauru is a sick little country, it’s an exemplary model of unsustainability and the Pacific Perversion known as a policy is it’s perfect accompaniment. If turning detainees into dollars is going to be the new industry to emerge in this already ominous century then living well or in good conscience as Australians is an unsustainable wish. Australian kindness and fairness is eroded and vanishing like so much phosphate money.
The Pacific Solution is about degrading the resources of people, as much as it’s about waste, and we are wasting far more than the $500 million the Pacific Perversion was priced at. At over $400 per day per detainee there, cruelty like this really costs. Many have spent three Christmases there.
Sick countries are always prey to parasites and we’ve supplied an army of them. The IOM builders, security guards, APS officers, DIMIA officers, technicians, electricians, telephone engineers, mechanical engineers, plumbers, psychologists, translators, doctors etc. These carrion feeders have turned to a reality; something that should not be. They’ve constructed a Hell in a white-hot cooker. Hell should be chaos, not organised like this one. And no matter how unsustainable, the ugly project grinds on, closing in on the recalcitrants who remain.
The Pacific Solution is terminal, but when it dies, we’ll have to keep repairing Nauru’s only source of water, a broken-down desalination plant and its electricity supply, because Nauruans share a single fate they will become environmental refugees. And they’ll be ours. Wages, even public service wages are mostly unpaid in Nauru, banks are closed, Kiribatis (the workers of Nauru) are returning home after careers of 20 years in Nauru. The local Chinese are also departing, their shops are raised and they feel unsafe, and threatened. Two of them were murdered last year. Nauruans are sullen, sick and drunk. I would be too.
There is no natural port or harbour to bring in goods. After four months, the Australian Government realised it must fly in supplies from Brisbane each fortnight if it wanted to keep order or staff. Petrol is siphoned from any parked cars, water is shipped in from the Solomons for the detainees, if it doesn’t arrive the IOM claims that it is stolen.
Nowadays, they are granted water for only one hour per day, imagine the competition for it.
Plants won’t grow, phosphate dust coats everything, telephones don’t work, electricity is rationed, sewerage seeps into the coral and flows back in from the sea. There is only one place you can swim.
Our money is keeping the airline in the black, it services the whole of the Pacific, when our solution vanishes, so will the airline that brings supplies, aid and the outside world, to the whole region.
For the moment we pay Nauru’s shipping and phone bills, its medical supplies and the many hospital bills of some of its corrupt ministers who choose our private hospitals for their superior care, and their secrecy.
Our Government’s dull genius was to invent a lucrative 21st Century Industry: Detention Camps. It wants to franchise the idea in Europe where there are no takers. If I’m not allowed to call them concentration camps, I will say that they concentrate depression, grief and despair, their only achievement or product.
Nauru is so unendurable that only about 80 detainees remain.
A group of detainees who had been granted refugee status were still behind wire after eight months, they burst out to live in preferred accommodation of a disused shipping container, it’s high on “rubbish dump road” the island’s informal dump, the locals burn their rubbish there as if to add to the discomfort of the already bad air.
For the others from Nauru, Kabul has claimed them back, but those ex-detainees are not free to go home; the roads are dangerous again, especially for Hazara, the mountains around Kabul rain down gun-smoke and rocket fire, and rocks which are still being crushed like biscuits by Americans or warlords or returning Taliban. Who knows who or why .…?
Gangs roam Kabul streets, so gangs and night-watchers band together to protect the Kabulis from warlords and thieves, no-one sleeps.
Before they left they wrote to us. They have written, humbly requesting tents and perhaps some tradesman’s tools, because they don’t have homes to go to. Or they’re too ashamed to seek out family who’d borrowed money on their behalves. Some detainees think that with a few tools they might be able to return to Iran, for paid work or slavery on Iranian building sites, where they’d been bullied and robbed before. Their letters say quietly what Mr Ruddock knew – “We will starve.”
Mohammed Mahdi, ID No. 105, has left Nauru, as has Payadar, ID No. 320 and Ali Shahedi, ID No. 166, for Kabul. “Why?” I pleaded to know. It wasn’t the lavish $2,000 gift (that was stolen from them on arrival by the police, as they knew it would be). For some it was the fact that families who’d gambled everything to save their sons were now destitute or at increased risk. Or, as it was gently explained to me, they had only one precious thing left to lose and it was their sanity.
I will never forget those young Hazara men, I think of them and I think of their dignity, their subtlety. I will never forgive those who have sacrificed them. Those men are the young dead and who can claim that we haven’t killed them? What damage could those fragile, worn, shipwrecked, war ravaged souls do to us?
I will never recover the love that I had for my country. My Government dumped people it regarded as rubbish on another country’s dump, turning it into a human warehouse on a Third World desert island. They hijacked nearly 440 near-drowned human beings and lied to them for three years. What burns in me still, is that Australia remains my home; my house. This Government has torched the valuables, the familiar furniture of our shared understanding of human rights and house rules, and has left us in a veneer of lies and self-deception.
Whilst I managed to help one young woman asylum seeker (she lived with us for eight months) I resent bitterly that I was prevented from helping an honest man, Mohammed Mahdi, ID No. 105.
For details about the rescues and treatment of asylum seekers by our military and naval forces on the Manoora, the Tobruk and other Australian vessels consult Spare Rooms for Refugees website, to find our report “Soldiers, Sailors and Asylum Seekers” for the real horror of it or David Marr’s Dark Victory. Not a word of either has been refuted by this Government.
At the end of my post-graduate at the VCA, I felt that fine art was removed and irrelevant to the wider world.
In the West, fine art had managed to elevate itself to its own irrelevant pinnacle of thought, it had so many clouds around it, few could really assess what it was.
Fine art had become a lonely island or monastery, it had nothing to do with the world of work or society. If it had jokes they were dull portentous ones. Art rebuffed its audience, while also demanding better and bigger spaces for more and more unlovely objects.
Young artists were becoming more adrift, they spoke a jargon, instead of the
English we share, and rarely made anything visually stimulating, let alone beautiful. Artists were becoming more fenced in by curators and critics, so almost by way of protest, I bolted into the world of fashion and decorative arts.
This was a highly heretical act, particularly for a girl. (We are speaking, it astonishes me of the late 70’s.) Female artists were doing all they could to deny their girliness. The word “decoration” was always prefaced by the word “mere” and you were damned if you were “decorative”
I resented the anti-female inference. I was going to dump all of my large and sombre canvases and devote myself in all seriousness to frivolity and silliness to make my point.
I have always to make a point, I want to make art, but it must be saying something. I want a discussion or a conversation with the audience even a rowdy or witty one. I don’t want to be enigmatic, I don’t want intellectual respect, I don’t want to be in a Biennale.
Klaus Oldenburg had a manifesto for artists that read “I am for an art that does more than sit on its arse in a museum”. “Yeah, baby!” I thought and I still do. I moved into my “smart art” phase. I would make art that earned its living. I ran a very unbusinessy jewellery business that travelled globally. My logic at the time was that art could permeate fashion. Fashion could become more provocative and thoughtful and that art could get down off its high horse and test itself in the cruel world of the crass, if not mass, market. Fashion is a ruthless skills test. It takes no prisoners and it forces you to work against habits or even your own style.
With friends we set up the Fashion Design Council. We staged enormous fashion parades and events. My jewellery started to become copied and by the late 80’s the parades and even my most outrageous jewellery had become orthodox, I was now bored. But still searching for the elusive niche that would suit my worldview, allow me to make works of joy and usefulness and support me financially. I was by now doing a lot of commercial interiors and restaurants and nightclubs. I did a little costume design for theatre and ballet, but above all I was interested in illustration and cartooning.
I had two interesting opportunities in Japan and New York. My exhibitions were sponsored by Seibu stores and I had a strange and too obsequious agent in Tokyo. I should have been set. I won an award in New York and ‘Time’ magazine offered to help me if I re-located.
Again, I found something wrong with pursuing a career rather my real interests. I am still in many ways 16 years old and I found the Japanese and Americans very grown-up, frightening about work. I suddenly felt very timid and Australian. I liked my peers here, I know our politics. I had a weekly cartoon. I was happy.
The idea of the book “Trust Lust and Chaos and Cruelty” was a sophisticated form of reversal or regression. The drawings of girls and their expectant boyfriends came from my past, my girlhood, and would never have been accepted at art school, I was expected to grow out of any sort of romanticism.
But, if you look closely, these pictures, especially with the help of their captions, are sly and far from romantic. The characters are slightly, disturbingly, under-age. The setting is always the same. The couch is in reality and in effect a stage for the little dramas I depict. Like Victorian tableau, these drawings are saying that all romances start and end on couches. The couch itself is a rather seductive and female form and it plays an expressive part in my little stories. The stories, like fairytales, can be deceptive, there is malice here and of course the drawings play on our contemporary uncertainties about relationships and love. Illustration is a dying art in Australia, and one of the most important, but I don’t want to talk about, it’s too painful and there’s too much to say.
In the year 2001 I’d had an exhibition at Gabrielle Pizzi’s and launched this book and was planning to take the book again at Ray Hughes, my gallery in Sydney, when my husband became involved in the Tampa case, which changed all my plans. I sat in court wondering what the lawyers had to do with it, when what was happening was that 438 asylum seekers were nearly drowned. Australia didn’t want them. They would be shipped to Nauru and that would be an end to it, but it wasn’t for me. I set up Spare Rooms for Refugees, a web-based register of people willing to give accommodation to refugees released from detention centres. And I attempted to sponsor a young Afghan man I saw on television who was stuck like now 1600 others plucked from the sea and packed off into Australia’s new tip, Nauru.
Through bluffing and a dogged persistence I got the names and ID numbers of everyone there and my husband started offering the names in small groups to letter writers all over Australia. They have formed friendships which I know have saved lives, others have been lost to us. About 1100 were returned to Afghanistan after two years of misery on that benighted island.
“Activism”, as it’s now called, of this kind cannot be done in one’s spare time. The descent into these and other lives destroyed by detention has been shattering. I would say that I suffered two entire years of grief. New stories of agony, injustice, malice, daily deception, violence and cruelty have been our regular conversation for three years. I am more calloused now. This is a callous country after all.
Four Corners asked me to help them with a co-production, a documentary on the “Pacific Solution” with the BBC. I knew a legal but long way into Nauru which was refusing all visitors especially journalists. We went, we filmed secretly in the camp and all over the island. The film has been on every affiliate of the BBC’s worldwide network. John Pilger wrote that it was a wonderful film. The only country that hasn’t shown it is this. The young man I tried to sponsor was rejected and has returned to Afghanistan. I was arrested and lied to. We’ve all been lied to ever since, even by the most benign of entities such as the ABC.
I am still shocked by it, still hurt and out of love with my country. It’s three years since I’ve made any work. However, my Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi reminded me that in spite of all that I was to remember that I am still an artist, and she said that it was time to make a show. I hate the idea of catharsis as art or as therapy. My work had always tried to be an amusing bridge between my indulgence of my need to make things and to justify those things’ lack of function.
If I had to make “art” again, what could I make with conviction? I decided I would try to paint the unknown faces of the victims of the SEIV X, the mainly 353 women and children who drowned, mysteriously unaided by the Australian authorities who were aware of their departure on “a dangerously overloaded boat”, but didn’t search for them. And the “children overboard affair” where again faces, facts and the true stories have been largely erased.
Perhaps, I thought an artist might again have a clear function, to visualise, represent, illustrate and stir the dried beds of the collective imaginations of people who have been untouched by these tragedies.
Artists like Gericault with the “Raft of the Medusa” came to mind? Artists painted epics, because without imagery many stories don’t cohere in the mind. Without photographs, we are lost, we no longer seem to have the visual mental ability to imagine events in our minds, and our government knows that. Asylum seekers are the least photographed and least spoken to people in Australia today.
Families like the Bakhtiari’s and the Kadem’s who’ve spoken up about violence, lying and bureaucratic torment pay a huge price. No-one speaks. As for me, I’m using oil paints for the first time in 25 years, it’s a romantic medium because I wanted to treat my subjects tenderly, not harshly, angrily or grotesquely say – like Peter Booth.
It’s hard to paint drowning or dead people sweetly. It’s harder to paint them in those glorious holiday waters of the Pacific. I wanted to paint them like the tiny islands like Nauru that I’d flown over or visited, little faces upturned in the water. Could I paint 353? The oil and diesel that choked them. It’s not until you try that you realise how many people that number represents. But my pictures are an effort to keep account, to keep testimony. I’m not sure if it’s art or illustration, I’m out of my depth actually, I’m not even sure if it’s kitsch or worthwhile.
I do know that I don’t resent the three years I haven’t been working as an artist. When I do hang this work in Gabrielle Pizzi’s gallery in November, I’ll know if it works or not. In either case it will be my personal acknowledgment of decent people locked in camps, returned people of Iran, Afghanistan and Iraq whose experiences here left no trace on this increasingly crude country, a country that speaks of excellence and “best practice” in all things bar human rights.
I’ve been absent without leave from art for three years, it’s not significant, except to me. I wouldn’t charge anything. Despite the despair I’ve felt, I’ve emerged with a sense of myself that I would never achieve from art alone. Even though I prefer to think modestly of myself, refugees have offered me a way of completing myself, of doing genuinely good things. My art on the other hand will do nothing for them, but my care of them has helped. It’s been an honour to be entrusted with their stories and their friendship. They have freed me from the struggle I spoke of at the start of this piece, my lack of usefulness and agency which is the lot of an artist.
I didn’t save the young man I began writing to in 2001, he was packed off back to Kabul. By way of compensation, we have an Afghani boy studying nursing who has lived with us since February, he’s helped us to understand the problems of refugees more deeply, we help him if not hundreds, having him with us is consoling and we’d hate him to leave.
I’m glad you’re interested in art, and where it’s at, but in the next 10 years as artists or as citizens, take an interest in politics, design and draw yourselves as whole people, nourish your mind and your moral values.
This lovely school is a little like art, it’s an invented object and is also like an island or a monastery set a little apart from the world. Parents send you here because they care for you, but remember as art should, there’s a world out there and it needs your attention, be an artist by all means, but be mindful, be moral.