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Tag Archives: refugees

Nauru, Art and Refugees

As a teenager I briefly landed on Nauru as the single aircraft in Air Nauru was the cheapest way to fly to Japan from Australia. I was in the cockpit as we landed, sitting behind the captain; it was common practice back then for the captain to invite children into the cockpit, although being in the cockpit during a landing was unusual however there were so few passengers on the flight that my brother and I were the only non-adults.

The island is tiny, the runway being the largest feature of the island seen from the air. There was a policeman manning a boom gate that stopped the cars crossing the runway as the plane landed. It looked like the dullest place in the world; it was dull for me and yet there were fat, bored locals sitting at the airport just to watch the plane arrive, probably the most exciting thing to happen all week on the tiny island.

This was at the time when Nauru’s sovereign wealth fund made it, per capita one of the richest countries in the world. It was during this period of prosperity that Melbourne was given a “gift of the people and government of Nauru” the sculpture “Three Businessmen Who Brought Their Own Lunch: Batman, Swanston and Hoddle” (aka “the metal men”) 1993 by Alison Weaver and Paul Quinn.

Now that the phosphate mines on Nauru and it administer sovereign wealth fund has been exploited and mismanaged Nauru has once again become, in all but name, a colony of Australia that uses it as a concentration camp for refugees. There are currently more refugees on Nauru than citizens.

I was reminded of this when I saw Kelvin Skewes, What was taken and what was given an exhibition of photograph at the Counihan Gallery. Skewes photographs of Nauru’s destruction shows the mix between the tropical island and the industrial wasteland, the jagged limestone exposed by the phosphate mining and the new industry of abusing refugee’s human rights.

This not the first time that landscape of Nauru has been the subject of art. In 2010 “The Nauru Elegies: a portrait in sound and hypsographic architecture” by architect Annie K Kwon and musician Paul D Miller, aka DJ Spooky. (See my post.)

Also at the Counihan Gallery is local artist Liz Walker’s The Wave, that also refers to the Australian regime’s criminal treatment of refugees. In the middle of the gallery Walker’s impressive post-minimalist boat made of 37,697 sticks (one stick for every refugee who has travelled by boat to Australia from 1976-2012). One wall of the gallery is covered in old suitcases, Memorial to the beginning of an unknown end, each of the open suitcases contains an assemblage, like Joseph Cornell’s boxes, with a reference to refugees coming to Australia. Walker’s use of worn and aged found materials combines both the poetic and the polemic. (For more on Liz Walker’s art do a search using the search box at the top of the right bar, put quotation marks around her name – there are about ten posts.)

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Welcome Refugees

On the 7 December 2013 in a co-ordinated effort the Refugee Action Collective (Vic) are attempting a mass action “to shower the streets of Melbourne with messages of welcome.”

Refugee Action Collective (Vic) rally at State Library.

Refugee Action Collective (Vic) rally at State Library.

Leaving your country is never easy and even people facing persecution do not take the move lightly. Refugees need to be welcomed, protected and helped; this is the basic standard of a civilised person. Any civilised, rational or moral human would welcome and protect a person fleeing persecution or death, it is an ancient tradition now codified in international law. Australia’s treatment of refugees is a crime against humanity perpetrated by a rogue state backed by a racist mob. Amnesty International reports that: “The United Nations Human Rights Committee has found Australia to be in breach of its obligations under international law, committing 143 human rights violations by indefinitely detaining 46 refugees for four years, on the basis of ASIO’s ‘adverse security assessments’.”

Not that I think that any propaganda campaign of posters, fridge magnets and rallies can change the minds of the amoral psychopaths that dictate Australia’s crimes against refugees. I doubt that it will be any more effective than my rhetoric.

The Refugee Action Collective (Vic) was mildly calling for civil disobedience in encouraging people to “sticker, chalk your neighbourhood”. For yes, even writing in chalk is technically illegal in Melbourne; not that I’ve ever heard of anyone being arrested for it, not that the three police at the demonstration were making any attempt to stop people writing in chalk in front of the State Library. Not that many people were writing in chalk on Saturday morning.

Christmas Island Just Visiting

Dignity 4 asylum Seekers

Melbourne’s street artists have been putting out the welcome refugees and showering the streets with more witty about Australia’s treatment messages for years. Of particular note, is Phoenix who has made the map of Australia into a welcome mat in a long running series of paste-ups. Phoenix sums up the both major parties position on refugees with the phrase: “We scare because we care”, a phrase that started with his paste-ups about the ‘War on Terror’. Phoenix is not directly involved with the Refugee Action Collective but his has donated some of his art to their fundraising auction. He is not a single-issue street artist and has been sticking his political art to Melbourne’s walls for years.

Phoenix welcome mat sticker with Ghostpatrol tag.

Phoenix welcome mat sticker with Ghostpatrol tag.

This sustained campaigns of illegal posters and stencils creates signs that the federal government and the opposition does not represent all Australians on this issue and is not in complete control of the territory it claims. Even though it was buffed with in 24 hours I’m sure that my local member, Kelvin Thomson got the message when the external wall of his office in Coburg was recently covered in anarchist graffiti.


Mixed Messages @ Counihan Gallery

I often find sociological exhibitions in art galleries to be out of context and poor art but Phuong Ngo’s exhibition “My Dad the People Smuggler” at the Counihan Gallery is long overdue and worth a visit.

Currently in Australia the two major political parties compete to demonise ‘people smugglers’, the people who assist refugees to get to places of refuge, and to abuse those seeking refuge. The Australian government’s deliberately cruel, degrading and illegal policies on refugees (piracy is still a crime even if carried out by the Navy) have been going on for decades now.

But back in the early 1980s in Australian policy towards ‘people smugglers’ was very different. Although Australia has long had an immigration policy that expressed racist xenophobia, the results of the Vietnam War lead to a brief period when refugees were welcome in Australia. It was during this period that Phuong Ngo’s father assisted others to leave Vietnam and arrived in Australia. The evidence that such things happened is in photographs and videos, including his father’s talking about his experience in people smuggling.

Not that I expect that this exhibition will have any effect on Australia’s current policy on refugees; it is safely in an art gallery and will just contribute to the mixed messages that exist in our society.

Michelle Hamer’s exhibition of small tapestries “I send mixed messages” is in Gallery One of the Counihan Gallery in Brunswick. The mixed messages are everywhere, as the Situationists loved to point out, the billboards, signs, stencils and tags all contradict each other. “Stop the madness,” reads a stop sign (stop me if you have seen this before). Clement Greenberg argued that kitsch was the inappropriate translation of art to the wrong media; I wouldn’t say that Hamer’s work is kitsch but I don’t know if the media is appropriate. As tapestries, the focus and much of the detail of the original photographs has been lost. I last saw Hamer’s work at Bus in 2010 but the work seems very familiar as there are a lot of artists creating needlework tapestry of urban scenes in recent years including Catherine Tipping, who will be having an exhibition of tapestries at Tinning Street Presents… later this month.


The Message – more political graffiti

I wrote in my recent post about culture jamming that “maybe it is time for a return to the politics of the blunt aphoristic quality of the graffiti slogan”. So here is a message from some anarchists to the Australian government about Australia’s inhumane treatment of refugees. (Notice that this message is site specific to the supermarket with its wall fenced off to prevent graffiti.)

And here are some more clear messages:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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