by Edmund Campion
Art by Kate Durham; A Certain Maritime Incident
Shame is the dark side of being grown up. Put that another way - you only feel shame if you are fully grown. This is because grown ups are responsible for their actions, whether done individually or communally. They own up to the consequences of what they have done, good or bad.
Agreed? Then you may also consider that while we Australians have many achievements to be happy about in this You Beaut Land, there are also causes for shame. Can anyone look closely at the consequences of our refugee policy, for instance, and feel happy? On the contrary, they shame us; or they should. On the other hand it is a matter of record that many Australians see this policy and its activation as national achievements of some worth. So in recent years there has been a contest across this ground for the hearts and minds of the Australian people.
One of the contestants has been the Melbourne artist Kate Durham. Her husband, Julian Burnside QC, got involved in the Tampa case, an involvement that opened up possibilities for action by Kate. She set up Spare Rooms for Refugees, a collection of people willing to accommodate refugees who were "released" into the community, often with little logistical support. This simple initiative has developed into a larger support system. Another Kate Durham initiative was to breach the information iron curtain around Australia's offshore prison on Nauru. She got in there with a camera crew and publicised conditions and she energised people in Australia to write to detainees there, to let them know they were not forgotten and thus, she may fairly claim, she saved lives.
Such activism, however, taxes an artist. Previously, Kate Durham's work was known for its wit and lightheartedness: you saw her work and you smiled, whether it was her paintings, culture, costume jewellery, furniture or cartoons. (Declaration of interest: an early Kate Durham three-dimensional work, Postcards, brightens a wall of my home.) If you want to see her in top form, take a look at her book Trust, Lust, Chaos and Cruelty (Melbourne: Hardie Grant Books), the naughty-but-nice cartoons celebrating the war between the sexes. The book was published in 2001. Then she went to Nauru and afterwards she wrote in the papers about the vile conditions she found there. The light-hearted cartoonist had become heavy-hearted. Last week she testified to this:
"The descent into these and other lives destroyed by detention has been shattering. I would say that I suffered two entire years of grief. Stories of agony, injustice, malice, daily deception, violence and cruelty have been our regular conversation for three years. I am more calloused now. This is a callous country after all."
Absent from art for three years, she was a different person when she picked up her brushes again. Fun had been left behind: now her subject was the life and death of refugees. Since we have few photographs of asylum seekers, she tried to provide faces and bodies for the stories that by now she knew well. They too are people - this is what her new paintings say to us. Melbourne readers of Online Catholics can see them in her exhibition at Gallery Gabrielle Pizzi, 141 Flinders Lane, which stays up there until the week before Christmas.
The story of the sinking of SIEV-X is central to this exhibition. In October 2001 some 400 asylum seekers sailed from Indonesia in an untrustworthy boat which, sure enough, sank at sea. Dead: 353 of them, including women and children whose men were already in Australia awaiting processing. Our government looked away, denied responsibility, covered up. A Certain Maritime Incident (Melbourne, Scribe: $32.95) by Tony Kevin tells the story in shameful detail. A retired ambassador (in Poland and Cambodia), Kevin has put his professional skills of analysis at the service of the truth, exposing the flim-flam, evasions and lies for what they are. It requires a special grace to stick at this sort of work, knowing that it may bring you derision or worse at the hands of powerful people. In an epilogue to his book Tony Kevin quoted Martin Luther King: "Our lives begin to end they day we become silent about things that matter".
Then he added his own comment: "If I had walked away from this issue, once I had realised how serious it was, I could not have lived with myself. I want my children to live in a society that has had the guts to confront its dark side."
Which, come to think of it, is where this column began.