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Nauru, Art and Refugees

As a teenager I briefly landed on Nauru as the single aircraft in Air Nauru was the cheapest way to fly to Japan from Australia. I was in the cockpit as we landed, sitting behind the captain; it was common practice back then for the captain to invite children into the cockpit, although being in the cockpit during a landing was unusual however there were so few passengers on the flight that my brother and I were the only non-adults.

The island is tiny, the runway being the largest feature of the island seen from the air. There was a policeman manning a boom gate that stopped the cars crossing the runway as the plane landed. It looked like the dullest place in the world; it was dull for me and yet there were fat, bored locals sitting at the airport just to watch the plane arrive, probably the most exciting thing to happen all week on the tiny island.

This was at the time when Nauru’s sovereign wealth fund made it, per capita one of the richest countries in the world. It was during this period of prosperity that Melbourne was given a “gift of the people and government of Nauru” the sculpture “Three Businessmen Who Brought Their Own Lunch: Batman, Swanston and Hoddle” (aka “the metal men”) 1993 by Alison Weaver and Paul Quinn.

Now that the phosphate mines on Nauru and it administer sovereign wealth fund has been exploited and mismanaged Nauru has once again become, in all but name, a colony of Australia that uses it as a concentration camp for refugees. There are currently more refugees on Nauru than citizens.

I was reminded of this when I saw Kelvin Skewes, What was taken and what was given an exhibition of photograph at the Counihan Gallery. Skewes photographs of Nauru’s destruction shows the mix between the tropical island and the industrial wasteland, the jagged limestone exposed by the phosphate mining and the new industry of abusing refugee’s human rights.

This not the first time that landscape of Nauru has been the subject of art. In 2010 “The Nauru Elegies: a portrait in sound and hypsographic architecture” by architect Annie K Kwon and musician Paul D Miller, aka DJ Spooky. (See my post.)

Also at the Counihan Gallery is local artist Liz Walker’s The Wave, that also refers to the Australian regime’s criminal treatment of refugees. In the middle of the gallery Walker’s impressive post-minimalist boat made of 37,697 sticks (one stick for every refugee who has travelled by boat to Australia from 1976-2012). One wall of the gallery is covered in old suitcases, Memorial to the beginning of an unknown end, each of the open suitcases contains an assemblage, like Joseph Cornell’s boxes, with a reference to refugees coming to Australia. Walker’s use of worn and aged found materials combines both the poetic and the polemic. (For more on Liz Walker’s art do a search using the search box at the top of the right bar, put quotation marks around her name – there are about ten posts.)

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About Mark Holsworth

Writer, independent researcher and artist, Mark Holsworth is the author of the book Sculptures of Melbourne. View all posts by Mark Holsworth

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