• What would you do, Mr Dutton' by Abbas Alaboudi. (Supplied)Source: Supplied
A new exhibition attempts to depict the harrowing experiences of refugees in Australia's offshore camps, revealed in the Guardian's Nauru files, through visual art, poetry and sculpture.
Daisy Dumas

2 Feb 2018 - 10:29 AM  UPDATED 28 Feb 2018 - 11:17 AM

Artists have tackled the emotional blanks of the infamous Nauru files, bringing grim stories of pain, trauma and dislocation into sharp focus through images, sculpture and poetry.

The leaked documents, published by the Guardian in 2016 detail over 2000 cases of assault, sexual assault and self-harm in the Australian offshore processing camp on the Pacific island.

While the reports provided shocking insight into the lives of refugees and asylum seekers in the camp,  Arielle Gamble, co-creator of the new exhibition All We Can't See, told SBS Life the contents did not reach enough Australians because of their official, "dehumanised" format.

“Language isn’t working,” Gamble said. 

“The stories in the Nauru files are dehumanised, removed, redacted.”

A year in the making, the exhibition brings together 33 artists - including Nauru detainees past and present - to deliver the once-censored information in a more creative way.

“Imagery is so immediate and it can cut through so much. It can speak through prejudice and humanity,” Gamble said.

Where one document bluntly recalls an incident of self-harm in the centre now comes an artist's take on the episode, a starkly beautiful depiction of the mountains of the Hindu Kush.

Instead of redacted names and locations,  the exhibits feature pleading faces, children’s anguish and the sense of young lives wasted.

The Sydney-based designer said she hopes the the show will be an emotional call to arms to all Australians.

“We hope that it will encourage people to read the Nauru files and read a lot of them. Then we hope people will make up their minds as to whether their conscience will allow this to happen in their name by their government,” Gamble said.

“And then we hope for change.”

ABDUL ABDULLAH “View from Manus II”

“This is part of a body of work that looks at the mountainous Hindu Kush region,” Abdullah told SBS Life from Sydney.

“It’s where a lot of asylum seekers and refugees in detention come from. I met an asylum seeker from there who was in the process of being resettled in Perth. He talked about how dangerous it was where he was from but also how much he misses it and his family. I wanted to focus on that juxtaposition of emotions.

He was the oldest son and his family put money together to get him to safety. It’s tragic. We both box in the same gym and he talked about how he felt so unwelcome in Australia. He lives with other asylum seekers and they all felt they were being rejected from this country, they felt isolated and alone. They weren’t allowed to work, everything was working against them.

What’s particularly frustrating is that people who oppose asylum seekers believe that fleeing is somehow a choice. It is clearly not a choice. It is a miserable situation with long term ramifications.

If I can give people a different access point into these stories, that’s a good thing. They are gut wrenching but they are so sanitised.”


ABBAS ALABOUDI “What would you do, Peter Dutton?”

“I thought that when I arrived Australia, all my suffering would end, but unfortunately I started suffering under the Australian government,” Alaboudi, who is from Iraq, told SBS Life from Nauru. “After four years, I still don’t know when this suffering will end. Already many people here are sick mentally and physically. Children, families, single girls are suffering.

When I got here, I felt my life stopped and like I was dead. Nothing surprises me here. I paint about the situation on Nauru, I just express my feelings through art. The art usually helps me, when I am painting, I can show my voice. I want to share my message with Australia.

I can’t forget this suffering, there is no future for children here. I want to understand the Australian government - we are powerless, we can’t do anything, we can’t talk about our rights. Please, Australian people, don’t stand by. Please do something, do something to help us now. Almost [everyone here] would not like to go Australia - I am one of them, I don’t like Australia any more.”

RAVI extract from poem “From Hell to Hell”

“In August 2012, I made the journey from Sri Lanka to the Cocos Islands with my two cousins,” Ravi told SBS Life from Melbourne. “There were 54 of us on a 48-foot boat. It took 22 days. It was a very dangerous journey, I never thought I would put my feet on dry land again.

In Sri Lanka, I was put in prison because I am Tamil. I was tortured, beaten, I have lots of scars on my body. I thought I could die there at any moment. I hid for one year. I had a tobacco business and I paid $8000 to leave by boat.

I was in Nauru for three years. I know how people live in the camp. When someone is stuck and they don’t know what is happening with their lives, it is mental torture. Let them go somewhere, let them make their own lives better. One of my friends has been in a detention camp for nine years. What’s the point? Half his life is gone.

English is my third language. I deal with my anxiety and pain by writing and drawing, it helps me cope. Most Australians don’t know what’s going on in Nauru, this is a good opportunity for them to understand more. Maybe people can see more truth than they are hearing from certain media and news.

I had a beautiful imagination about Australia. It was completely destroyed when I got to Nauru.”

Safe Harbour airs over four weeks, premiering Wednesday 7 March at 8.30pm on SBS. All episodes will be available after broadcast anytime, anywhere, for free via SBS On Demand. Join the conversation with #SafeHarbour.