For this project I installed 1000 posters around the country that carried the slogan “Real Australians Say Welcome”. The poster was inspired by the often forgotten second verse of the National Anthem that calls upon our “courage to combine”. That ‘courage’ seems strangely absent from Australia’s treatment of asylum seekers.
It began with this Pozible Campaign
Currently, anyone who arrives here without permission has no chance of making Australia their home, regardless of whether their claims to asylum are genuine or not. Instead they’re imprisoned until they agree to resettle in Papua New Guinea, a country that’s set to take $577 million in aid from Australia, up from $502 million last year.
If the Australian Government is genuinely determined to break the people smuggling business model, as it says it is, why aren’t the enormous costs associated with the “Pacific Solution” being used to create better legal avenues for asylum seekers to reach Australia? The short answer to that question is “Islam”.
Since starting this campaign I’ve been overwhelmed by support, but I’ve also spoken to plenty of people who are openly afraid of Muslims. Most of these people aren’t bigots and they’re not racists, they’re just ordinary Australians whose idea of Islam is based entirely upon the 6 o’clock news. They have no Islamic friends so they feel comfortable saying things like “they don’t intergrate”. Isolated within a media bubble, their fears only grow.
Then along comes the Government to service those fears by offering so-called safety to Australians by disregarding the human rights of a few asylum seekers, whose faces we’ll never see. The final irony is that, in the long run, this policy is anything but safe because it only widens the gap between Muslims and those that fear them.
The truth is that Islamic migration to Australia began 150 years ago. Starting with the Cameleers of the Burke and Wills expedition and the thousands more who followed them to create outback trade routes that would have been impossible without camels. Islamic Cameleers were such an essential part of the Australian economy that Muslims were even granted exemptions to the White Australia Policy. They could come and go from Australia as they pleased.
The point is that Muslims have a long history in this country. To further disregard and damage that connection for political gain is not only irresponsible, it’s also cowardly. But as long as politicians are willing to exploit the base fears of the electorate it’ll be up to us rise above the fear and isolation that politicians exploit. I don’t blame ordinary Australians for feeling isolated and fearful but at some point we each need to make a simple choice and ask ourselves whether we have the courage to combine.
Personally, I’m sick of Australia’s identity being hijacked by cowards. Since starting this project I’ve received a mountain of support from people who seem to feel the same way. I think it’s okay to be afraid of people that seem different, it doesn’t make you a bigot or a racist. When confronted with an unfamiliar culture it’s natural to feel fear. How we choose to respond to that fear is where people, and nations, find their character.
*originally published in CityMag
The idea for this project started during Australia’s 2013 federal election. Both major parties were promising to ‘stop the boats’ that carry asylum seekers to Australia. I designed this poster to parody the policy and began installing it around London’s east end . After living overseas for almost a year I’d noticed in myself a growing concern towards Australia’s conflicted national identity. To put it simply, I wanted to feel proud to be Australian without ignoring the facts. I decided to confront the issue when I returned home.
Back in Adelaide I made contact with the community group ‘Circle of Friends’ who gave me a great deal of help in the process of entering the Inverbrakie Detention Centre where I was able to meet asylum seekers. I began meeting one family at a time, explaining my idea for the project and hoping that I might find someone who liked to draw. This went on for several months until I’d collected several few sketches.
I decided to include participants who had recently left detention and were living in the community on bridging visas. On Australia Day I attended a large community picnic held by various community groups that support asylum seekers. It was there that I met Ali Rezai Muhammad. He told me his story and that he loved to make art. For the first time I felt sure that the project would be a success.
I began to install the posters in the first week of June. It took two weeks to install all 36, at the end of which time some had already been removed. The project received an overwhelming public engagement and support. I took great pleasure in letting Ali know just how much his story was appreciated.
One thing I’ve learnt from this project is that the individual stories behind migration are more nuanced than the politicised stereotypes, from both sides of the debate. It’s difficult to empathise with people when you can see that their story has been filtered through a political agenda. So I tried to stay an impartial.
On the original question of national identity, I still believe that everyone wants to feel proud of the country they belong to but every nation is, at times, unjust. So it’s impossible to avoid a conflicted sense of national identity and the task of resolving that conflict is perpetual. The willingness to accept that task, however, is something we might all feel proud of.
Thank you to everyone who helped throughout this project, especially Ali.
Having made illegal street art for years without being caught I’d started to forget that it was a crime. So when I was finally arrested I began to think more seriously about its criminality. This interest grew into a ‘side project’ which quickly blew out into the largest street art campaign I’ve undertaken.
I started by searching through the police documents at the South Australian State Records. The photography of the early 1920s stood out immediately for its technical qualities so I narrowed my search to the record GRG5/58/unit103.
I began selecting criminal’s mug shots based mostly on the immediate impact of the image. Whether through their defiant pride, amused irreverence or shamed humiliation some faces drew me in and those where the ones I chose. I was also attracted by the more innocuous offences, especially those that have since been decriminalised. Judging by their expression, the dubious offence of ‘idle and disorderly’ seemed as laughable then as it does now. Likewise, the supposed ‘offence’ of ‘attempted suicide’ or ‘sodomy’ seemed to confuse the convicted as much as their criminal classification offends us today.
By evoking the power of nostalgia and the notion of historic value I knew I could use these images to confront the idea of the criminal as an outsider, especially in the context of street art as a criminal act.
I began pasting up the posters at night before I realised it would be much safer during the day dressed as a legitimate worker. This approach also seemed more fitting to the theme of questioning the criminality of street art. So when I donned the high vis vest and went about my business I didn’t feel like a criminal, I felt as thought I was performing a public good.
Each paste up stood 2.5 meters tall and included the criminal’s full name, conviction, sentence and date. Overall I pasted up 42 individual mug shots (21 sets of 2) to the cost of AU$1170 in printing alone. The project was entirely self funded.
Eventually I was contacted by the Adelaide City Council and I admitted the posters were mine. The council agreed to stop removing the posters if I would take steps to legitimise the whole project through their ‘pilot project’ scheme. So I filled in an application, promising to track down every property owner and request permission to do what I’d already done (still in progress). I was also told I would have to remove the criminals surnames so not to connect surviving relatives to their criminal past. I’ve since been contacted by several relatives who actually enjoyed connecting the dots and were very encouraging towards the project as a whole.
Despite these obstacles I was very pleased by Adelaide City Council’s allowing the images to stay on the street long enough to be seen by the public for whom they were intended. I hope their open mindedness can extend towards the work of other artists.