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 to 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.