Artist behind controversial Bondi mural defends statement on treatment of asylum seekers


Australian artist Luke Cornish has defended his decision to paint a mural at Sydney's Bondi Beach about onshore and offshore detention, as critics call for it to be removed.

Australian artist Luke Cornish said he has no regrets about creating a mural at Sydney's Bondi Beach, as one local councillor calls for it to be removed. 

The artist, who also goes by the name E.L.K, said he thought carefully about what he wanted to say when he was invited to submit an idea for an eight-metre long mural on the sea wall at the world-famous beach. 

"It's a comment on our treatment of asylum seekers in Australian detention facilities - onshore and offshore," he told SBS News on Wednesday. 

The mural has been criticised as "offensive propaganda".
The mural has been criticised as "offensive propaganda".

A line of 24 Australian Border Force officers is depicted with the phrase "not welcome to Bondi".

"The 24 officers is symbolic of the 24 suicides in Australian detention facilities since 2010," he said.  

"Bondi is the image we portray to the world as sun and sand but unfortunately a lot of them [asylum seekers] are not welcome to Bondi."

Bondi is the image we portray to the world as sun and sand but unfortunately a lot of asylum seekers are not welcome to Bondi.

- Luke Cornish, Artist

Since 2010, there have been 24 suicides in Australia's offshore and onshore detention centres, according to The Australian Border Deaths Database.

Over the last six years there have been at least 12 deaths on Manus Island and Nauru: including the deaths of Fariborz Karami (aged 26), Rakib Khan (26), Sayed Ibrahim Hussein, Jahingir (29), Hamed Shamshiripour (31), Faysal Ishak Ahmed (27), Kamil Hussain (34), Omid Masoumali (23), Fazal Chegeni, Hamid Khazaei (24), Reza Barati (24) and Rakib Khan (26).

The mental health of refugees on Manus and Nauru has deteriorated in recent months, with the Refugee Action Coalition saying there has now been more than 95 self-harm incidents, involving more than 62 asylum seekers and refugees.

'People who don't have a voice'

The idea for the mural was vetted by the local council and Cornish said he was given "full creative licence" with the project. 

"I was really just given the opportunity to say something, so I used that opportunity to speak for people who don't have a voice."

Luke Cornish
Cornish says the mural is "a comment on our treatment of asylum seekers in Australian detention facilities".

The Archibald finalist says the work is closely connected to his series on Syria's civil war, which is displayed at the Bondi Pavilion Gallery. To create that collection he travelled to Syria in 2016 and 2017 to document the impact of war on people. 

"I think having witnessed first-hand, having experienced what these people are escaping from, I think it is only fair that I speak up about the treatment that they receive when they get here."

'Offensive propaganda'

Councillor Leon Goltsman from Waverley Council is calling for the mural to be removed, describing it as "politically motivated offensive propaganda likely to offend families and turn away visitors".

"The world-famous iconic Bondi sea wall is supposed to be a celebration of our beach and local culture, and the murals should be appropriate for the broad family and tourist audience," he wrote in a post on Facebook. 

Facebook post

Cornish said he has no intention of taking the mural down, but says like his other works, stencil artwork is temporary and could be replaced by another piece. 

"Considering that I have spent many, many hours down there painting it, the only feedback I've had ... everyone is saying 'well, what about the kids?' Every kid that walks past it [says] 'that's awesome. I really like that'," he said. 

"The majority of the feedback has been technically it is a good mural.

"It's art. It can't all be butterfly wings and bubblegum paintings. It needs to make people think. That is the whole ethos of street art. It is political by nature and it is ephemeral by nature too. So I'm not going to be upset if I go down there and it has been painted over. It has served its purpose."

Mixed response

Reaction on social media have been divided. Some have lambasted the mural's political message, and criticised its violent depiction.

"To me it represents hatred and gives Bondi a bad name … totally inappropriate!" one user wrote on Facebook. 

Others have praised the artist for showing subject matter that is not comfortable. 

“Art was not meant to be comfortable. Look at Bosch, Brueghel, Picasso and the great Guernica,” another Facebook user said.

Luke Cornish

Cornish said he knew the work would generate a reaction, but he did not anticipate the scale of it. 

"It is a very divisive piece and I hadn't planned for it to be as divisive as it is," he said. 

"I was really just commenting on this issue [of onshore and offshore detention] and raising awareness. Particularly with people who don't want to hear about it, [the] people who just want to change the channel. These are the people need to hear about it.

"The government doesn't do what we tell them to do, they do what we let them do."

Waverley mayor John Wakefield has defended the artwork, saying it is medium that can and "should solicit a reaction".

He cited previous murals on the Bondi sea wall which have included political commentary on issues including terrorism.

The Waverley Council vets submissions for murals on the Bondi Beach Sea Wall to stay for a period of six months. Since the late 1970s submissions have "featured a mix of street and contemporary art with strong social and political messages throughout the decades", the council says on its website.

Cornish first developed a name for himself in Canberra when he first began experimenting with stencil cutting and spray paint. He became the first stencil artist to be nominated for the Archibald Prize in 2012 for his portrait of Catholic priest Father Bob Maguire. His work has been no stranger to controversy with his 2011 piece Wake Up and Smell the Stink attracting criticism for his depiction of Jesus Christ wearing a crown of thorns and a gas mask.

The governments of Australia and Papua New Guinea have agreed to developing a timetable to close immigration detention facilities on Manus Island housing about 350 refugees and asylum seekers.

Readers seeking support and information about suicide can contact Lifeline 24 hours a day online and on 13 11 14. Other services include the Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467, Beyond Blue and Kids Helpline (for people aged five to 25) on 1800 55 1800. More information about mental health is available at Beyond Blue.

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