In the year 2001 at my exhibition here at Gabrielle Pizzi’s gallery I launched my satirical book “Trust Lust Chaos and Cruelty”. I was planning to take it also to Ray Hughes, my gallerist in Sydney.
When my husband, Julian Burnside, became involved in the Tampa case this changed all my plans. I set up Spare Rooms for Refugees, a web-based register of people who were, like me, willing to give accommodation to refugees released from detention centres. And I attempted to sponsor a young Afghan man who, like 1600 others had been 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 almost 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. 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.
I’ve been absent from art for three years. In this third year, I’ve emerged with a sense of myself that I would never achieve from art alone. My art will do nothing for refugees, but my care of them has done something. It’s been an honour to be entrusted with their stories and their friendship. It is the lot of an artist to lack usefulness and agency.
Traditionally, artists painted narrative and epic paintings, because without imagery many stories don’t cohere in the mind. Today, without photographs, we are lost. Asylum seekers are the least photographed and least spoken to people in Australia today. My pictures are an attempt to introduce characters, people even though they’re imaginary. These pictures are not “political”, they are about a tragedy.
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 and visited, little faces upturned in the water. Could I paint 353 or the oil and diesel that choked them? It’s not until you try that you realise how many people that number represents. I’m not sure if it’s art or illustration. I haven’t finished this work, there’s yet another face and another wave ahead.
This exhibition is dedicated to Amal Hassan Basry, a brave woman who kept herself afloat clutching a dead woman’s body in the water for 22 hours. She is now battling bone cancer.
Speech: Jill Singer – 1.30 pm