Comment: Why the art world is blind to sex crime

Dennis Nona with artwork. Source: National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award (NATSIAA)

If you are an artist and you abuse a child, never fear: the art world has your back, writes Melinda Tankard Reist.

Artists who commit sexual violations are too often considered above the law and deserving of special treatment.

Their brilliance is given deferential treatment: they exist in another moral universe where the rules governing everyone else don’t apply. Oddly, this deference does not apply to parking tickets.

Whether the art objects are photographs, films, pieces of pottery or woven tapestries, their makers are often bestowed with godlike qualities. Queensland art gallery owner Andrew Baker describes Torres Strait Islander printmaker and sculptor Dennis Nona, for example, as having ‘invented the visual language of his people’. Simon Wright, author of Dennis Nona: Time After Time, marvels about Nona’s ‘reckoning of the universal lay fertile”.

When Nona, 42, was jailed for multiple child rapes in 2014 – he challenged the conviction, but lost his appeal in July – members of the art world rushed to prop up their idol. Art history professor Sasha Grishin, for example, wrote that he was “not in any way disputing the seriousness of the crimes” for which Nona was convicted, but insisted that he was “the most important artist to emerge from the Torres Strait in the past 50 years”.

Cairns Regional Gallery director Andrea May Churcher stated that art, over time, has a life beyond its creators, and that Nona’s objects should still be seen as “an important part of our cultural heritage and works”.

With so many accolades, the sexual torture of children is rendered almost subordinate.

Art historian and valuer Frances Cummings said he was “very supportive” of Nona: “He is a genius of an artist and the things he committed were when he was a very young man.”

Nona’s former arts manager, Michael Kershaw, told the ACT Supreme Court that Nona was a ‘role model’. With so many accolades, the sexual torture of children is rendered almost subordinate. Perhaps we need to be reminded of what Nona did.

In 1995, Nona moved in with a mother and two teenage daughters while attending a Canberra art school. He raped one of the girls over the course of a year until she became pregnant at the age of 13 and was reported to child protection services. (The pregnancy was terminated at 23 weeks. In the words of the judge, the girl “underwent a late stage termination, which was not a straightforward procedure”).

Court records indicate that harm to the girl has been long lasting in the terrible damage it has done to her. She has suffered suicidal thoughts.

In 2004 and again in 2006, Nona was arrested on a domestic violence offence as well as an assault against a woman who refused to have sex with him. A domestic violence order was served on him in 2006.

Nona has not just been propped up by bigwigs of the Australian art world. A 2012 court judgment records that “senior officers of the AFP... for reasons of convenience or, most likely, expense” did not charge Nona with child rape offences in 1998, despite their having “evidence that the applicant had the opportunity to commit the offences”, and “extremely strong DNA evidence” of his responsibility for the pregnancy.

In the judgment, the presiding judge acknowledged that many people would find this decision by the AFP “inappropriate, if not shocking”. Shocking or not, the Australian art world was the beneficiary of the AFP decision, because Nona’s exhibitions continued in Australia and overseas.

The Australian painter Donald Friend was a self-confessed paedophile.

Even when police finally charged Nona, he pleaded not guilty, made an application for a permanent stay of proceedings under the Human Rights Act, and failed to show remorse.

Other artists have played the art card throughout a life of the sexual abuse of others, without any such call to justice. For example, the Australian painter Donald Friend was a self-confessed paedophile. A documentary produced by Kerry Negara reported Friend's boast, in his own diaries, of frequent sex with boys as young as nine and 10 while living in Bali.

A prominent curator, Barry Pearce, responded that paedophilia was not black and white – that Friend’s paedophilia was “on the light side of penumbra” and Friend was merely interested in notions of youth and the ideal of the beauty of the body.

In contrast, the Balinese boys – now grown – said that they felt exploited and harmed by the experience of being “appreciated” for their beauty by Friend. But Pearce said to call Friend a paedophile would be “shocking”.

At the same time, the Australian art world is backed by public institutions that promulgate their sexual values.

The “roll-over” feature of the National Gallery of Victoria website allows viewers to zoom in on the naked body of an underage girl, without any cautions or caveats about the digitalised collection, the identities of the children pictured, or any indication of the controversy around the photographs displayed.

The roll-over pictures are part of the 1985 “TCM" series that Bill Henson gave to the gallery in 2007, before it auctioned off some works in the series in 2008 (another earlier auctioned image was of an underage girl lying on her back naked, with legs spread).

The Australian art world staunchly defends Henson’s activities in producing and disseminating these pictures. Tolarno Galleries refused to reveal the age of the youngest naked girl in its exhibition.

Filmmaker Roman Polanski raped and sodomised a 13-year-old – whom he had lured to a photoshoot – after giving her alcohol and a quaalude, while she begged to be released. He faced charges and fled to Europe because a judge suggested he might put Polanski in prison.

Polanski's defenders described him as a persecuted victim: he was such a wonderful person and how tawdry was it that he should be subjected to the law, and what a nightmare for the poor genius. He continues to be a celebrated director.

Gore Vidal was quoted in The Atlantic as saying: “I really don't give a fuck. Look, am I going to sit and weep every time a young hooker feels as though she's been taken advantage of?”

No amount of whitewashing by the art establishment should be allowed to disguise the reality of the suffering of real victims.

Melinda Tankard Reist is co-founder of Collective Shout for a World Free of Sexploitation.


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