Sunday, 25 September 2011

Take a Break from Asylum Law Debate for Refugee Art

Readers of this blog will know by now that I have been attempting to cover the latest wave of controversy  and events in Australia’s long-running public debate over asylum law and refugee policy that revolves around the key contested issues of onshore/offshore processing: whether or not asylum seekers arriving by boat are let into Australia to have their claims processed here - or whether they are sent to be ‘processed’ in a nearby country or Pacific Island; if they are processed here whether or not they are put into ‘mandatory detention’ (in effect a form of indefinite imprisonment whilst they await the processing of their claim which may take years); if they are accepted as legitimate refugees whether or not they are issued with Temporary Protection Visas - which allow the rights of refuge but only on a temporary basis denying the security of citizenship....Another key area is of course refugee children and how they should be treated. 
Those following these events in Australia will also know that the ‘resolution’ of the Asylum Law debate in Australia has been suspended over the parliamentary break. When Parliament resumes in two weeks time a vote will be held to determine whether the Labor government has sufficient support to pass its proposed amendment to the Migration Act to allow offshore processing of asylum seekers in Malaysia, commonly referred to as the ‘Malaysia Solution’ - which the Labor government has said repeatedly  is the way to ‘break the people smuggler business model,’  referring to the boats that ferry asylum seekers to Australia - for a sum of money - a dangerous voyage that has resulted in many shipwrecks and deaths at sea. This shows how desperate asylum seekers are to further risk their lives in their bid to save their lives from the situations of war and conflict and environmental disaster that they are fleeing from.
Meanwhile, for if you are in Sydney, there are two significant exhibitions of art by refugees now living in Australia that give a different view from the perspective of asylum seekers and refugees themselves, that you might like to visit in this lull, in the political ‘asylum law debate’ and that I shall discuss in my next blog entry.
The exhibitions are: 
 ‘Unsafe Haven: Hazaras in Afghanistan’ photographs by Abdul Karim Hekmat, a UTS graduate and former refugee from Afghanistan- who returned to his former homeland in the Hazaras regions in 2010 and documented his journey through photographs and text.  At the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) Tower Foyer, Level 4, 15 Broadway, Ultimo. Dates:  5 September- 7 October 2011.
The Refugee Art Project at ICE Information and Cultural Exchange, 8 Victoria Road, Parramatta. Dates: 8 September- 29 September. 10-4pm Mon-Fri.
I will discuss these exhibitions in a coming blog entry.

Monday, 19 September 2011

'Jamais Arrière' Clan Douglas: Australian Ancestry, ‘Boat People’, Mariners and Vikings

By Ruth Skilbeck

Ghost boats have been sailing in shadowy force through the Australian media, and through my family history, these past weeks. Ghost boats have a legendary tendency to return and haunt the living when they least expect it. They sail into earshot and cause chaos with their cacophony, the wailing voices of those lost at sea, lamenting and beseeching from watery graves, pleading to be rescued and laid to rest; or reclaimed and brought back to life in family histories...
Something strange happened as I was writing these notes on the unfolding and refolding of the ‘circular’ asylum and refugee debate in Australia, the Great Southern Land in which I’m domiciled. I was researching and writing about the ‘ghost boats’, asylum seeker’s rickety “wooden boats” that sink without trace as they head from Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore on the perilous voyage to Australia. The untold numbers of men, women and children lost at sea over the last couple of years. 

Jamais Arrière  Douglas. 

Then, quite unexpectedly, I received in the mail, pages from a family history, prepared by distant relatives in Perth. Emblazoned with the Clan Douglas crest Jamais Arrière Douglas. This was sent to me by my stepmother and told the story of a branch of the family that I knew next to nothing about - my paternal grandmother’s side who emigrated to Australia from England in the mid nineteenth century. Apparently Clan Douglas my newfound ancestors were in the middle ages the 'ruling family' in Scotland and Clan Douglas had many castles.

Clan member crest badge- Clan Douglas

I found out I was descended from ‘boat people’ and mariners, with two ship’s captains in the Australian Douglas family tree - hailed as heroes for their numerous daring and dangerous sea rescues: a batch of press clippings from the time recounted the stories.
Thomas Douglas, born in 1823 in Foxton, Cambridgeshire, was a farm hand, his wife Phoebe (nee Wisbey)’s family lived near ‘the chalk pits’. Thomas and Phoebe and their three young children, William, Frederick and Alfred emigrated to Australia, to escape the poor economic times and food shortages that swept England in the mid 19th century; resulting in the biggest waves of migrants recorded, 350,647 persons leaving England in 1852. In 1853, Thomas, Phoebe and children sailed across the world in the wooden sailing ship Sabrina, arriving 92 days later in Albany, WA. They were ‘boat people’.
Thomas Douglas “Pioneer, orchadist and market gardener” and Phoebe Douglas nee Wisbey “our matriarch” prospered in the colony:  They had ten children and within a few years  owned a sizeable estate, numerous properties and land in Perth. Records show Thomas bequeathed a “gift” to his son William to buy a steamship; and a tugboat, Dunskey, was bought in 1896.   
William and Frederick -who sailed to Australia in the Sabrina as infants - were the nautical sons, youthful members of the Albany rowing regatta team who each grew up to be mariners and ships captains.
Captain William Douglas (b 1848) was a “mariner, police officer, pioneering orchadist and gold prospector”.
In May 1885 William Douglas was involved in the rescue of some sailors from the vessel HMS Opal, as reported in the Albany Advertiser and the Albany Mail.  Two sailors from a man-o- war had set out in a small craft in the Albany Harbour.
“The day broke with threatening skies. The strong wind and intermittent thunder presaged a fierce storm, at 11 a.m., according to custom, two sailors set out from the men-of-war in the borrowed boat to return it to the moorings. Captain Douglas in a passing steam launch (Perseverance) hailed them to hug the shore...But they ignored the warning and stood out in the middle of the harbour. Less than an hour later when they were still a long way from their objective, the storm broke over the little craft. The sailors boat capsized in deep water and with big waves breaking over them as they clung to its keel, the two men were in desperate straits...”
Captain Douglas went to the rescue in the steamship, and managed to save one of the men who was clinging to the bow, by the time he had reached him  the other sailor had “swept away and drowned”.  
“The boat had an air tank installed in the bows and that alone kept it afloat...the survivor was being dragged beneath the surface with it and was ....drowning.  When he was eventually pulled into the steam launch he was barely alive. Captain Douglas then headed for the nearer of the warships and after careful manoeuvring the sailor was taken aboard...he presently revived. Next day a signal flew from the mast-head of one of the men-of-war....requesting the attendance of Captain Douglas on board....all hands were piped and the First Lieutenant in their presence expressed his gratitude for the heroic rescue performed by the launch. Watching through our glasses he said we were astonished how quickly you got him out of the sea in such rough weather. In conclusion he handed Captain Douglas a purse of money collected by the ship’s company as a tribute of appreciation.  Captain Douglas, replying stated that he had heard that the young man who had lost his life was the sole supporter of his mother in England, and requested the lieutenant present the money to the mother on his return to England. This was agreed and three hearty cheers were given for Douglas’s gallantry and seamanship.” 
In 1896, after several years  on land gold mining with his Douglas Mining and Prospecting Company, William borrowed 1000 pounds sterling from his father Thomas  and went to Sydney were he purchased the steam tug Dunskey, which he sailed to Albany .
The family history tells another tale of a daring sea rescue this time in the Dunskey. 
“On July 12th, 1899, following a terrible gale, the sailing ship “City of York” ran onto Rottnest Island’s northern shore to become a total wreck. On the next day, in the Dunskey, William effected a daring rescue of the remaining crew still aboard the wreck, while his son Clem and Bill Riley manned the Dunskey beyond the rolling surf, William rowed his tiny 14ft (4.5 m) dinghy to the wreck and in several (some accounts three, others eight) perilous journeys laid his craft alongside the hull to save the surviving eight crew - and a cat. Recommended to the royal Humane Society for his bravery, he nonetheless received little more than the acclamation of his contemporaries for a courageous and very dangerous rescue.”
Several more incidents are recorded in the family history: William purchased and sailed a three masted barquentine “Iris”;  moved into ship building and  built a 5 ton timber steam launch “Perseverance”;  cut and exported she-oak timber to Europe; salvaged wrecked vessels (ships) before settling down to more “prosaic activities” in the 1920s, building a 45ft long lighter (wooden barge). Emma his wife died in 1929; William  died three years later in 1932. 
Captain Frederick Douglas, Master Mariner, was an “early trader on the south coast. Fred owned and operated the schooner Agnes, which was wrecked in a storm at Bremer Bayin 1890 and the topsail schooler Grace Darling, which gave stirling service to the south coastal hamlets before her sale, and eventual wrecking off Lanceline in 1914."
Like his brother William he saved many lives at sea:
“Fred was to figure greatly in the rescue of over 200 passengers and crew from the steamer Rodondo which was wrecked on Pollock Reef on the south coast in October 1894. But for his presence, it is most likely that there would have been few survivors of this dramatic shipwreck.”

Reading these stories, I cannot help but wonder, what would my mariner ancestors, the good Captain’s Douglas, saviours of many lives at sea, have thought of the shipwrecks reported in the modern day online press? The “ghost boats” that sink at night, and the men women and children all lost? Would they have set out to help? If they had rescued the drowning, though, and brought them to shore, then what would happen to them? 
It’s impossible to say, of course. Meanwhile, the circular patterns of history continue.
On my paternal grandfather’s English side of the family we may be descended from another sea faring mob of boat people who invaded England in the 8th century - the Vikings- which is where the surname comes from (Skilbeck in Norweigian means house by a stream). Although another story has it that many hundreds of years ago some blight threatened the Yorkshire village of Skilbeck and its occupants dispersed each taking Skilbeck as their surname as an identifier of where they came from.
Yesterday, I received a letter with news that my London-born nephew, who runs a scuba diving business in a coastal hamlet in WA, is taking qualifications that will lead to him being able to captain a ship...
With so much salt in the family veins, no wonder the ghost boats are circling my mind, ghosts of the future past, their phantom passengers calling out for help, before they hit the rocks.


Quoted text from ' The Family of Thomas and Phoebe Douglas in Western Australia and the descendents of John Duglas b.1731. ' Compiled by Bob Douglas, Kendenup, Western Australia, June 2011. Second Edition.

Clan Douglas - Wikipedia

Jamais Arrière Douglas. Clan Douglas crest

Clan Douglas Tartan:

Clan Douglas  History:

Clan Douglas  Castles: 

Monday, 12 September 2011

Refugee Roulette? Power and Change in Australia

I used to teach a first year course called Power and Change in Australia. It was a popular course that’s no longer running; the reason given was that it was time for a change. Anyone following the unfolding-refolding Asylum law debate in Australia over the past weeks may be forgiven for thinking that title rather aptly alludes to the practice of those in power to effect change, an example being the ways a ruling government has the power to change laws if they become inconvenient.  Even if that may mean by-passing prior international human rights obligations and changing the Migration Act, through exercising sovereignty.
“This is something else. This is about government having power to act” said  Prime Minister Julia Gillard when announcing today the government’s intention to change the laws to by-pass the High Court decision that the Malaysia Agreement is unlawful.  
The government’s announcement was condemned by the Greens and by refugee action groups.
Greens leader Senator Bob Brown accused Labor of moving “to the right of Tony Abbott” on refugee policy.  Senator Brown criticised Ms Gillard’s determination to pursue her  government’s failed ‘Malaysia Agreement’:
“She is out of touch with the Australian people. The Green will not be supporting this position.”
In what is one of the most controversial aspects of the move, concerning  the protection of refugee children recently raised by the High Court, the Immigration Minister, Chris Bowen's confirmed the governments's intention to amend  legislation to ensure that unaccompanied children could be processed offshore. This would require changing the Immigration (Guardianship of Children) Act so the Minister can make “blanket decisions” to send unaccompanied minors off-shore despite the conditions or lack of safeguards that might exist in any third country.
The government’s controversial ‘Malaysia Solution’ - a deal to swap up to 800 asylum seekers arriving by boat in Australia for 4000 processed refugees from Malaysia - was this month overturned  when the High Court ruled that it contravened Austraia’s legal obligations as signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention - through refoulement, sending away asylum seekers without considering their claims. The principal of non-refoulement  - "not driving back”- is an essential component of asylum and international refugee protection. A State may not return a person to a territory where they may be exposed to persecution. 
The High Court ruling also raised questions of the legality of all off shore processing of asylum seekers. In response, the Labor government has now revived its plans to send asylum seekers to Malaysia, through amending the Migration Act. Unlike Australia, Malaysia is not signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention.
Many commentators including former Liberal Prime Minister (1975-83), Malcolm Fraser have criticized the government’s proposal for not adequately considering the humanitarian implications of sending away vulnerable, traumatised people including unaccompanied children to countries that are not signatories of the UN Refugee Convention. Mr Fraser's government implemented policy thirty years ago in accordance with the Refugee Convention admitting almost sixty thousand Vietnamese refugees including  2059 'boat people' from Vietnam.
In an unusual ‘bi-partisan’ collaboration, Ms Gillard has been in discussions with Opposition leader Mr Tony Abbot, to devise a strategy to enable continued off-shore processing which they both support - albeit favouring different off shore centres. Today Ms Gillard said that Mr Abbott opposes her choice of Malaysia, she opposes his choice of Nauru, yet apparently they compromise over Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island. As the Greens oppose offshore processing, the support of the Coalition is crucial to the government’s proposal passing through Senate.
Refugee action groups also  condemned the Gillard government’s announcement.
“The Gillard government is following the long and dishonorable history of the Howard government changing refugee laws whenever courts found their actions to be unlawful,” said Ian Rintoul, spokesperson for the Refugee Action Coalition.
“We hope Labor’s proposed amendments will be defeated in the Parliament, but the choice is not between Malaysia or Nauru. The government should drop all third country and offshore processing.”
Asylum seekers have been processed on shore in Australia for 46 of the 53 years since the Migration Act was introduced.
The Age/Nielsen online poll reported  53% of those surveyed said that asylum seekers should be processed onshore; other online newspaper polls have been varied.
Meanwhile the impasse that began with the Howard government's controversial introduction of offshore processing known as 'the Pacific solution', ten years ago, continues. 
The ongoing controversy in Australia over allowing asylum seekers to land  began with the Howard government's introduction of offshore processing known as 'the Pacific Solution', never challenged in court, but that would now likely be ruled  "unlawful" given the High Court's ruling of the Malaysia Solution as unlawful.
Ten years later,  the impasse continues. Plus ca change, plus ca meme change; the more things change, the more they stay the same? 

The roulette wheel spins again, and with it spins in hope and dread, the lives and fates of untold refugees.

© Ruth Skilbeck, 2011

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

'Urban Aboriginal Women Artists' in the International Journal of the Arts in Society

A research article I wrote on contemporary urban Aboriginal women artists has just been published in the International Journal of the Arts in Society

The article discusses Fiona Foley's work in the context of the history of the Boomali Aboriginal art collective, and the transnational communication of urban Aboriginal women's art in the international art world. Also included in the article are photographs and analysis of works from Foley's installation on Cockatoo Island at the 2010 Sydney Biennale, and from the exhibition of indigenous women's art held concurrently at the Sydney College of the Arts, Women's Art, Women's Business with works by ProppaNow artists including Jennifer Herd, Andrea Fischer and Bianca Beeson and curated by Dr Tressa Berman, director of San Francisco-based community arts organisation, BorderZone Arts. This was held as part of the 5th International Conference in on the Arts on Society at Sydney College of the Arts.

Below is one of several photographs in the article of the work of prominent urban Aboriginal Australian artist, Fiona Foley, that I took when she showed me around her first major survey show, Fiona Foley: Forbidden at Sydney's Museum of Contemporary Art, 2009-10.

Figure 6: Fiona Foley. Dispersed 2008, charred laminated wood, aluminum, .303 inch calibre bullets, edition of 3, 9 parts, each 52 x 32 x 25 cm. Collection National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, purchased 2008; and Stud Gins, 2003, exhibited in Fiona Foley: Forbidden Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney 2009. Photograph: Ruth Skilbeck

Sunday, 4 September 2011

'Make Art Not War': What Are We? Asylum Debate and Cultural Identity in Australia

Just as relevant today are the themes of my article, 'Make Art Not War' (2008) a piece of experimental arts writing written in the 'voice' of my alter ego, art critic and abstract expressionist artwork, Rosa Viereck, in a column entitled Pink Oblong (Rosa Viereck is the title of a painting by Vasily Kandinsky), first published in, on Australia Day 2008. I wrote this piece after interviewing refugee poet-musician Mohsen on his experiences of exile and  his life after detention in Australia. In what I term the fugal modality of writing the 'voice' of the text is dissociated from the author (me). The fragmented voice of Rosa Viereck, abstraction personified, drew a connection between unsettled Australian artists, Indigenous women activists, and exiles in detention in the desert.
Australians recently celebrated another year of one version of an Australian story, and after the first step in the process of reconciliation, ROSA VIERECK considers what it means to be an Australian and looks to Sidney Nolan and indigenous peoples for inspiration.
Australia, or Invasion, Day, makes me think of geometric shapes. Black squares. White cubes. Me. In a gallery. A pink oblong. My own shape. Rosa Viereck: pleased to meet you.
I’m secure in my identity. But sometimes just the sound of the word Australia, let alone its abstraction, can make me question who I am. “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” was modernist artist Paul Gauguin’s heartfelt cry in ‘French’ Tahiti. His painting’s plea becomes an epithet to colonial identity confusion.
Here, at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, it’s a black square screen-head. Atop a black rectangle. I am looking at the symbolic shape of what is known as an icon of Australian identity art. Sidney Nolan’s outlaw: Ned Kelly. Riding through a desert. Gun in hand. In reverse. A symbol of quixotic alienation: human form reduced to a black abstraction in the red heart. White settler alienation in a black helmet. What are we? What does it mean to be Australian? It’s a familiar refrain. Can we find ourselves through Art? I am here to tell you, yes, and lose ourselves as well. Look at me! And look at Nolan in the retrospective at the AGNSW.
Looks like he found out a thing or two as he lost himself in a hallucinogenic landscape of his own perception. About the shifting shapes of ‘settler’ identity. The outlaw. The colonial law enforcers.
But things have changed since Nolan painted his Kelly series in the late 1940s. The modern era has shifted to postmodernism. Multiplicity abounds. Polyphony rocks. In the new era of protest, outlaws are replaced by activists. Fighting for social justice for outsiders ‘othered’ by the ex-colonial law makers. Refugees in detention. Indigenous communities. Stranded in 21st century deserts. Deprived of health and education services settler society calls basic. When activists faced charges –later dropped – of helping refugees escape the country to a third country of refuge, writer and refugee supporter Tom Keneally wrote to those facing court: “The better angels of Australia are singing with you.”
My new favourite book. Another Country, writers in detention, edited by Tom Keneally and Rosie Scott. I open at random, and read:
In the midst of the parched desert
no one can come with us
We cannot journey hand in hand
There is no green place to rest the eye
and the scorching wind of destiny lashes at our backs
A call to DIMIA is like the smell of rain in the desert
Hope like black clouds, building in our thirsty hearts
turns quickly into grief
Photograph of Mohsen © Ruth Skilbeck
A cry from the heart from Mohsen Soltany Zand (pictured above). Persian poet, political exile. Four years in detention, in the desert; now a permanent resident.
Photograph of Aunty Shirley © Ruth Skilbeck
More passionate words come into my mind. Aunty Shirley (pictured above), Aboriginal activist, speaking at a 2007 Human Rights Day Rally, in Sussex Street, Sydney.
Aboriginal women are the backbone that has built this country. They have lain on their backs and been raped and given birth to white fella’s babies and had their children taken away and grieved for their children. And their blood is in this city and in these buildings. We won’t go away. Will we stay around? Come back next year...”
These voices know deep pain, and endurance. They are the voices of suffering and survival. They have travelled a long way through the desert to be here. We are all travelling through this country.
What does it mean to be ‘Australian’? Why not rephrase the question to: What does it mean to be here? Or not. Nolan knew, too. Look at his hallucinatory deserts. Razed red earth. Ribbed chasms like the chambers of a dissected heart. Filled with floating motifs. Falling horses. Leda; the swan. Aliens. Dislocating dreams. From a fractured world. Shifting shapes. Of being/seeing. Nolan said he hit upon the black square, after coming out of the army and the war. When he wanted to do “something that was opposite to the sunlit bush...and would explain something of what was happening to me”. In a landscape of cultural trauma, he saw something sinister and menacing in the gun toting black square. To do with shaken identity.
In the great southern land we are all at heart dislocated, invaded and invaders. Together, we can reshape the future. Through mutual acceptance of many colours and shapes. Reconciliation. Make Art not War.
Copyright © 2008-2011 Ruth Skilbeck