Current Issue #488

Not in our name: Illustrating the Nauru Files

Not in our name: Illustrating the Nauru Files

All We Can’t See, an exhibition illustrating the stories of asylum seekers and refugees detailed in The Nauru Files, will be in Adelaide for a limited time this month.

In 2016, The Guardian published The Nauru Files: a cache of more than 2000 leaked incident reports written by Australian detention centre staff on Nauru between 2013 and 2015. The reports included incidents of assault, self-harm, abuse and horrific living conditions endured by asylum seekers on Nauru. More than half the leaked files concerned children. Journalist David Marr called The Nauru Files the “Panama Papers of Australia’s refugee gulag” and “raw evidence of torture deliberately inflicted”.

Artist and graphic designer Arielle Gamble read each and every one of those files after they were leaked to The Guardian. She had to act.

“When the Nauru Files were published, the Coalition dismissed them as ‘hype’,” Gamble tells The Adelaide Review. “A Senate inquiry was launched, but the findings weren’t published until months later, and meanwhile the issue was largely swept under the rug in the Australian mainstream.

“The Nauru Files aren’t hype, they’re an overwhelming body of primary evidence detailing horrific human rights abuses happening in our name,” she says. “I didn’t feel we as a nation could afford to ignore them. I certainly couldn’t once I’d read them – I felt to do so would to be complicit. As language around this issue had become too shrouded in prejudice and politics to be meaningful, I felt art could cut through and speak to our shared humanity in a way that traditional media no longer could.”

As media access to Nauru is limited, Gamble decided to illustrate The Nauru Files with an exhibition featuring work from acclaimed Australian artists (Ben Quilty, Janet Laurence, Abdul Abdullah and Alex Sexton) alongside pieces from emerging artists and asylum seekers.

Hoda Afshar’s portrait of journalist and asylum seeker Behrouz Boochani, 2018

“It has been very important for me as a curator to meaningfully engage with people who have lived this experience themselves,” Gamble says. “Including both high-profile names as well as emerging artists with lived experience of our detention regime. [This] speaks to our common humanity and the solidarity of those who want this country to do better.”

Originally showing in Sydney before travelling to Melbourne, All We Can’t See will exhibit in the foyers of the Adelaide Convention Centre around the 48th Labor Party National Conference. It includes a new work by Alex Sexton, A Durable Solution – which comprises three tents made from marble and engraved with the names of the men who died in Australia’s offshore detention centres – created exclusively for the conference.

“I wanted to be as strategic as I could in this year leading up to the Federal Election,” Gamble says of exhibiting around the conference. “I heard about the conference from some political insiders, and pitched it to the Labor events team, thinking it was rather a long shot. It turns out there are many people within the Labor Party who care deeply about this issue and are working hard to advocate for change. The fact that our show was accepted into their foyers is an unequivocal acknowledgement of their efforts, and of the drive for humane policy reform within the party and Australian community at large.”

Gamble believes the “out of sight and out of mind” policy of holding asylum seekers in offshore detention centres has been an incredibly effective policy, as it’s kept “most ordinary Australians in the dark about what’s happening in our name”. This is why she wanted to illustrate the Files. “We are glad our exhibition has helped illuminate the realities of offshore detention, and inspired people to become more engaged in advocating for change.”

Durable Solution?, Alex Sexton, 2018
A Durable Solution, Alex Sexton, 2018

Gamble thinks public sentiment is shifting with politicians and public figures such as Jimmy Barnes using their voice to call for children to be removed from Nauru.

“There has been a huge shift in awareness and public momentum,” she says. “Both major political parties need to admit that this policy is cruel and ultimately unsustainable, and develop a humane and reasonable refugee policy going forward, with safeguards in place to make sure the atrocities that have characterised offshore detention can never happen again. Deaths at sea are, of course, unacceptable, but so too is human sacrifice as border policy.

“It’s time to immediately evacuate all refugees on Manus Island and Nauru to Australia for swift and fair processing so that they can begin to rebuild their lives.”

Planning to turn the exhibition into a book, Gamble says: “These stories are horrific but we must know them, own them, and learn from them in order to grow for the better as a nation.”

All We Can’t See: Illustrating the Nauru Files
Adelaide Convention Centre, Riverbank Foyer 5
Sunday, December 16 to Tuesday, December 18

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