Artists and Asylum: Hope for a different story

I took this photograph of a photograph taken by Australian Rosemary Laing on display at the 2007 Venice Biennale. It is a shot of Woomera Detention Centre. My photo does not do it justice. It is a raw, cold and confronting image of Australian policies.In 2010, comedian Ahn Do published his story of being a refugee. It was a best-seller and an award-winner.

This year, I had the privilege of meeting Mark Seymour, singer and songwriter, best known for his work with Hunters and Collectors, on the Hot Potato tour. He joined the tour because he didn’t like what he was seeing in Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers who arrive by boat and the lies being spun about them.

Today I read a piece by Geraldine Brooks lamenting the lies, the silence and the heartlessness of Australia’s treatment of refugees. It is an extract from a book being published next week, called A Country Too Far, edited by Rosie Scott and Thomas Keneally. She wrote:

“There has been an ugly brilliance to this silencing. Whoever devised the gulag system for asylum seekers understood very well that the Australian heart was too big to withstand the truth about the people who risked everything to come here. But if the truth is silenced, lies can fill the space. And that is what happened.”

This is a small and random offering of Australian artists reflecting on the lies and the cruelty, the punishment, victimisation and violence being done to asylum seekers who come to Australia by boat seeking protection from harm and persecution.

Artists are often understood as those among us who keep watch on our collective ‘soul’, those who reflect back to us what they see we are becoming and have become.

When I read the Brooks’ piece and saw that some of our country’s finest writers had put their amazing minds, hearts and talents to the matters of asylum and protection and everything in between, I felt a tiny ray of hope. I was reminded of the artists – performers, writers, visual artists, musicians – who I know have been watching over the years with sharp and keen eyes. I was relieved to see more of them now engaged with what I believe to be one of the three issues which will define our country for generations to come (the others being justice for the First Peoples of this land and our response to climate change).

Human history has demonstrated only too well that it is the artists in societies who are often the first targets of repressive and cruel regimes. They see things we don’t. They read the ‘texts’ which surround us every day to which we often become oblivious. They challenge the ways we have been trained to see the world. And this is why I felt a tiny ray of hope.

At a time when Australia’s new Government is bringing to bear all its creative energies in devising ever more abusive, harmful and degrading treatment for some of the world’s most vulnerable people, when they are deliberately withholding information about the nature and effects of these policies (which make them seem somehow more personally vindictive – if it was just about looking ‘tough’ for political gain, why wouldn’t you want to tell those citizens who have now become ravenous for more of this systemic abuse, exactly how horrible you’re making it for people), when our generosity as a country has been squeezed out of us, we need our artists to unsettle our souls, open our eyes and engage our minds.

The churches, the advocates, the activists, the caring citizens, have had their voices stifled. Our artists may now be our best hope of writing a different story for our country.