Prove your humanity

Refuge has now closed at the John Curtin Gallery, but its message will extend beyond the two months it was available to us here at Curtin University.

Refuge featured Angelica Mesiti’s Mother Tongue (2017) and Candice Breitz’s Love Story (2016); both pieces were timely and crucial to understanding and empathising with the struggle of refugees—especially considering the treatment of asylum seekers by the Australian government.

Mother Tongue – Angelica Mesiti (2017)

Mother Tongue by Paris-based artist Mesiti is set in Aarhus, Denmark. The piece was presented in surround-sound by two complementary side-by-side screens, each broadcasting different content. Walking through the dark room with only the dimmest of lights to guide me to the seating, it was obvious to me that Mother Tongue was musically-driven, using sound and melodies to both affect and connect with the audience.

There were juxtaposed sets of Danish choral music and hide drums, with an interpretive dancer in what appeared to be parliamentary rooms and people singing from books inside old buildings. . The people inside the room could have been a family or just a group of friends, but the music they made together with a simple keyboard, bass and microphone was zesty and vibrant, echoing through stairwells and carrying history in the shared vocals.

Mother Tongue focuses on the ways in which immigrants and refugees can bring their language, music and culture with them, as a tie to their homes, even when they can’t physically be there. In the exhibit description, Mother Tongue is painted as having “universal resonance, presenting a series of diasporic encounters between those who seek to belong, yet also retain and preserve a sense of cultural identity and tradition”. The artwork was full of rhythm and deeply personal for viewers and those featured within it and, despite what might otherwise be implied by having two screens play different scenes side-by-side, did not show any immigrant cultures at odds with local Danish ones. They are complementary, making one-another familiar.

Love Story – Candice Breitz (2016)

Image Source: John Curtin Gallery

Love Story is split between two rooms. The first contains footage of Julianne Moore and Alec Baldwin, acting out interviews between refugees and Breitz. In the second room, hours and hours of footage from six different refugees—Shabeena Francis Saveri, Mamy Maloba Langa, Sarah Ezzat Mardini, Farah Abdi Mohamed, José Maria João, and Luis Ernesto Nava Molero—are displayed on 6 different screens. In front of each screen sits a small couch and three sets of headphones. These headphones turn the process of listening, something almost passive in the first room with its audio played aloud, into an active decision on the visitors’ behalf. Not only does it isolate the stories—and visitors—from one another, it makes listening a choice.

By having Moore and Baldwin vocalise the stories of refugees—true stories of their suffering, tenacity, survival and abuse—the audience is forced to ask themselves under what circumstances they are willing to engage with these stories. What will make them listen? What will make them care? Love Story “challenges audiences not to ignore the stories of refugees”; it questions, as the exhibit description says, “why is it that the same audiences driven to tears by fictional blockbusters remain unaffected in the face of actual human suffering?”

The actors sometimes break character, speaking to Breitz, and are sometimes shot with photography equipment in the background, emphasising the performative and fictive aspects of their role in Love Story. The refugees, on the other hand, are always shot from the same medium distance—the focus is their story and their words—subsequently, these are cast with a verisimilitude that the actors are not framed with. These people were not performing nor merely telling, rather Moore and Baldwin are re-telling.

The refugees being interviewed by Breitz are all fully aware of the impact of having Moore and Baldwin tell their stories. They send messages to the actors, compelling them to tell their story correctly, and thanking them for doing so. It’s very obvious that Moore and Baldwin take this duty seriously. Another aspect of their performance was the lack of costuming used to characterise each refugee; instead, viewers differentiate the performances by the jewellery worn by each actor. Moore wears bangles, bracelets and rings—gifts from friends and mothers, symbols of acceptance and of survival. Baldwin wears a wire tie from one of his “characters”, a single personal item that was kept while in an Egyptian prison.

Love Story makes its audience’s response and knowledge of their motivations an active part of the artwork. Knowing why you showed up directly affects the way you feel about being confronted with the knowledge that many people who attended probably came because of the Hollywood faces on the posters.

The Treatment of Refugees in Australia

An essay in the Perth Festival visual arts pamphlet, by exhibition curators Felicity Fenner and Chris Malcolm, quotes French philosopher and cultural theorist Paul Virilio who warned about “the imminent acceleration of the refugee crisis and its impact on our world”. Virilio was alarmed by the displacement of 36 million people due to climate, natural disasters and conflicts, and wrote that “the old societies were connected to a territory, a native land. Today they’re adrift due to the delocalisation of jobs and never-ending conflicts” (2008).

Eleven years later, this prediction is almost certainly the case for any person seeking asylum in Australia by boat. Displaced from their homes, they are now held captive on Nauru and Manus Island (Papua New Guinea). On April 14th this year, Palm Sunday marches were held across the nation. The Brisbane Times quoted Greens senator Larissa Waters who spoke at a rally, saying she and her party would “never ever lock up a single man, woman or child for having the audacity to seek freedom”.  University of Sydney magazine Honi Soit also reported on the rallies, quoting Wiradjuri elder Bronwyn Penrith, who said “Aboriginal people have always offered a safe haven for people in need. Aboriginal people would have certainly welcomed [refugees] on their land”.

Rallies were also held in Perth, with hundreds gathered in the city to march for peace on a day of Christian commemoration of Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem.

Image source: Siraj Media

Australia has been hostile to refugees and immigrants, with the subject of African immigrants and gang violence being conflated and used as the go-to election rhetoric of the political right. Drumming up fear around “stopping the boats” won Abbot the prime ministership back in 2013, commencing the infamous and inhumane Operation Sovereign Borders.

Bringing the artworks from Refuge into Australia has a particular potency to our current political and cultural treatment of foreigners, immigrants and asylum seekers. Seeking asylum is a human right—defined in Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—and to deny survivors of international conflict and civil war their freedom is to infringe on inalienable human rights. As of March 26th, there were 547 people held captive in Papua New Guinea, and 359 in Nauru; a total of 915 people were being illegally detained. Many of these refugees have been held in detention for more than a year. Since 2012, over 4,000 people have been illegally detained while seeking asylum. Until February 18th, over 1,200 people were transferred to Australia for medical reasons since offshore processing began.

Image source: Refugee Council of Australia

As many people already know, treatment within offshore processing camps and detention centres are unbelievably inhumane, with many asylum seekers suffering from depression, PTSD and attempt self-harm or suicide. Journalists, doctors and politicians have been blocked from visiting Nauru, and Australia’s behaviour has warranted international criticism. Too many people have died on Nauru.

Strong negative opinions of refugees arriving by boat outnumber strong positive ones by more than two to one, according to a study (N = 10,249) published last year. Even though many people support the right to flee persecution to another country, many believe seeking asylum via boat is an illegitimate way to do so. The study concluded that “men, Australia-born, and those with [a] lower level of education, of poor financial status, and orientation towards political conservatism support turning back refugees arriving by boats in higher proportion”. Support for turning back boats from Australia has increased between 2010-12 to 2013-15.

Tides desperately need to change. Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish journalist, has been able to publish a book while illegally held captive on Manus Island, called No Friend but the Mountains, which also won the Victorian Premier’s literary prize for literature and non-fiction earlier this year. The role of artwork in changing peoples’ minds about asylum seekers and who they are is crucial and central.

This goal cannot be achieved alone. Refuge’s message of sharing stories of refugees and stoking empathy within the people who hear them, and by witnessing the deeply personal nature of the music and culture they bring with them, is certainly a good place to start.