All we can’t see: Illustrating the Nauru Files

Many flee persecution for their political or religious beliefs, ethnicity, nationality, social or gender membership, seeking asylum in more liberal countries and societies. However, enforced migration from certain nations can lead to mandatory detention in others; and the conditions rarely differ.

In August 2016, The Guardian published a cache of over 2,000 leaked reports from 2013 to 2015 revealing the problems of protracted refugee situations, in this case the Australian offshore asylum seeker processing centre on Nauru, a tiny island country in Micronesia, northeast of Australia. Dubbed ‘The Nauru Files’, these records detail individual cases of physical assaults, sexual violations, child abuse, self-harm and abhorrent living environments at the site. Despite the harrowing nature of the files, the centre continues to operate – the conditions remain and the abuse ongoing.

Following the exposé, creatives Arielle Gamble and Daniel New were inspired by the words of Australian novelist Richard Flanagan in his essay Does Writing Matter? ‘Sometimes… writing can panic us in the same way we are sometimes panicked at the moment of waking: here is the day and here is the world and we can sleep no longer, we must rise and live within it.’ Gamble and New felt compelled to disperse these accounts to a wider audience via a new medium. Their project, ‘All we can’t see: Illustrating the Nauru Files’, with the support of The Guardian, Human Rights Watch and Yellow House Sydney aims to demonstrate, in creative protest, the human axiological crisis of Australia’s offshore detainment hellholes; ‘In the absence of media access to the island, our objective is to illustrate these stories through creative expression, using art to shed light on all we can’t see,’ proclaim the duo.

Sam Harrison, Untitled, 2017, woodcut on fabriano, edition 1/7, 100 x 70cm. Courtesy the artist and Yellow House, Sydney

The participating artists voice their concerns around the effects of immigration detention on the health and wellbeing of its occupants; each work relates to a specific Nauru file. Sam Harrison’s Untitled (2017) depicts a shirtless, malnourished figure in response to an incident on 28 May 2015 where a detainee refused food and water until his arrival in Australia. The subject’s featureless face is reflective of the redacted text in the file concealing the complainant’s identity. The work’s stereographic-esque form and monochromatic tone complement the psychological and emotional condition of the individual. Harrison reminds us ‘of the fragility yet strength of the human form, of its enduring ability to remain fundamental and confronting when stripped bare of its armour.’

Janet Laurence, Flotsam /ˈflɒts(ə)m/ noun – People or things that have been rejected or discarded as worthless, 2017, Duraclear on acrylic, mirror, 50 x 50cm. Courtesy the artist and Yellow House, Sydney

The works of Janet Laurence and Alex Seton confront death. Laurence’s Flotsam /ˈflɒts(ǝ)m/ noun – People or things that have been rejected or discarded as worthless (2017), shows a red substance indicative of blood filtering through the blue waves of the sea. A translucent bubble containing those fleeing, symbolic of a planned mass suicide reported in file ‘6 October 2014’ in which 30 people were willing to take part. While Seton’s Oilstone 01_Transluscent (2015) reflects case file ‘6 July 2015’ where a family suggested suicide was their only retreat from the dangerous climate of the centre – ‘if they are forced to live in Nauru they will jump into the ocean,’ reports a staff member. The Yamaha boat engine carved from white Bianco Carrara marble marinates in a tray filled with rusty oil. The almost blood-red substance penetrates the natural stone, the more it is absorbed, the greater the chance it will permanently stain.

‘All we can’t see’, is at once an exhibition including leading Australian artists, a website and Instagram profile where public submissions are accepted. One work will be uploaded each day allowing each written account and visual representation to be viewed and recognised as a human story, no longer ignored.

Alex Seton, Oilstone 01_Transluscent, 2015. Courtesy the artist and Yellow House, Sydney

Yellow House
2 to 10 February, 2018

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