Australia is the only western democracy not to have constitutional or legislative bill of rights. Currently the racial discrimination act has been suspended in part of the country, so that the Australian federal government can discriminated against the aboriginal population. The abuse of the rights of refugees is currently a fundamental cornerstone of Australian mainstream political debate and both major political parties vie to be the cruellest and least humane towards refugees. Basically the state of human rights, even awareness of human rights, in Australia is appalling.
Against this background there are two alternatives: to be loudly critical or quietly submissive. The exhibition, “Compassion and Commitment: Starting from Home” at the Collingwood Gallery, part of the 2010 Human Rights Arts & Film Festival. has chosen the later alternative. The curators, Louisa Marks and Kelly Madigan have referred to human rights in their curatorial statement as often as Australian governments have legislated to protect them – zero. Instead they have decided, with all the good will in the world but little of the intellect, that humanism and other vague positive statements are a satisfactory alternative.
“Recognising the inspiration and awareness which stems from creative expression, the objective of this exhibition is to highlight the active collaboration and communication between artists and community groups.” (Curatorial statement) They could have, with this kind of statement, recognized “the inspiration and awareness” stemming from the artists who design logos and propaganda for fascist groups. Many totalitarian regimes, like Stalinist Russia, encourage “active collaboration and communication between artists and community groups.” It is all very vague; perhaps it would have helped if the curators had developed some understanding of human rights rather than trying to shoehorn their interests into a human rights festival.
In a further demonstration of how much value Australia has for human rights the exhibition is at the Collingwood Gallery, a small shop front rental gallery space. In 2007 I saw the “Apropos” exhibition at Bus Art Space, part of the first Human Rights Arts & Film Festival, and my disappointment with the exhibition was that the art on exhibition wasn’t reaching a wider audience.
It is all very disappointing and depressing. I have reviewed some of the artists exhibiting in this exhibition before; there is nothing wrong with their art, some of which I’ve seen before, but I don’t think that their work has anything to do with human rights. I don’t think that these artists are fooling themselves that their art has anything to do with human rights either – it is just another exhibition opportunity. A few of the artists like, William Kelly, Ben McKeowan, Stephanie Karavasilis and Sonja Hornung do address current and local human rights issues in their art but in the context of this exhibition they were effectively muted.
I don’t know what the rest of 2010 Human Rights Arts & Film Festival is like but I hope that it has more guts and relevance than the exhibition at Collingwood Gallery.