Artist and social activist, Jacqueline Benney, a colleague of mine, is about to open her art exhibition I Want My Mum To Come at McGlade Gallery, Australian Catholic University, Strathfield.
I recently asked Jacqueline about her art, her work at Villawood Detention Centre in Sydney and Australian politics in 2013.
Explain how working at Villawood has shaped your approach to your art and the ACU exhibition.
Prior to doing volunteer work at Villawood, I made numerous visits to families living in community detention from Auburn, Seven Hills and Toongabbie. When visiting these homes, I was accompanied by Uniting Church Minister and Humanitarian Reverend, John Jegasothy, who was a Tamil refugee more than twenty years ago. He introduced me to these people. I was welcomed into their homes, offered tea and biscuits. I had the pleasure of interacting with their children and talking with them about their experiences.
These people had spent many years in places like Villawood Detention Centre and Christmas Island. They were young married couples with young children, some born in detention centres. They had made sacrifices to get to where they were and wanted safety, shelter and food. They were Sri Lankan Tamils who had undergone severe discrimination; many had experienced torture, the death of family members and destruction of their homes.
During this twelve month period, my drawing depicted domestic environments with a focus on the everyday and the most simple pleasure of being with those you love, at home. They had a safe and modest home in Australia. My aim was to demonstrate the sameness between all of humanity, where basic needs like shelter, food and safety are sought. I felt humbled to be in the prescence of these people.
Being a volunteer at Villawood for the next twelve months intensified my experiences significantly. My content took on another form conceptually and materially. I battled with amplified emotions while teaching the children art. The children were happy to have company. They smiled and hovered around me. They were going to make art! The individual stories of these children were extraordinary. I could not let go of them for the days between my visits. I absorbed them and pondered on how I could do them justice through my art.
My drawings took on a quality of immediacy through the use of ink and brush on Japanese rice paper, where a more liberal line replaced previous attention to detail. I began to use ink and brush in a quick and fluid way, with a focus on emotion rather than the recording of the likeness of character.
I could not take photographs inside Villawood, so I had to rely on memory and mediated imagery. My art-making became more about feeling and experience, and less about narrative. Their stories could best be told through their eyes.
In short, working at Villawood caused me to be out of control and left my drawing in the hands of emotion, memory and experience.
Why did you decide to give the exhibition the title, 'I Want My Mum To Come'?
This quotation came from an amazing Tamil man who told me his story. I asked him, 'Are you happy here?' He replied, 'Yes, very happy. It's safe. We can go to bed at night and sleep peacefully. In Sri Lanka our beds would shake as there were bombs going off all the time. We were never safe. I worked in curriculum with children. I also worked for the militia and learnt a lot about electricals. I would like to be an electrician, I would like to study, but I have to support my family'. I asked him, 'How did you get here?' He answered, 'By boat. It was hard. We were told that we would be on the boat for four days but we were on there for twenty-six. It was horrible. The boat was in poor condition. We were scared when we arrived because the military came onto the boat. In Sri Lanka, the militia would hurt and rape. They asked us where we were from and checked us. Then they took us to Christmas Island. We had food, clean clothes; they gave us thongs because we lost our shoes on the boat. We had activities. They took care of us'. I asked, 'Do you have any family here?' he answered, 'No, I have three sisters and my mum in Sri Lanka. I want my mum to come'.
What do you want to happen as a result of people seeing your exhibition?
Awareness-raising, dialogue, bridging gaps. I want people to leave knowing that our response to this asylum seeker issue needs to be humanitarian, rather than about a cheap politcal vote. We need a humane response to a human issue.
As creative acts are informed by memory, experience and cultural knowing - which infiltrates the human psyche - it is a powerful way to alter and challenge belief systems.
Audience reception is the thread which affirms and supports a universal dialogue. It is cyclical and self-perpetuating. We should approach creative acts with openness. There is insurmountable value in being aware of the affinity that exists between all humanity.
Explain your artistic process... Where do you work? How do you work? What's your preferred medium?
My making is informed by getting involved. Without this, I am unable to feel or empathise with others. I work internally for weeks, and sometimes months, before I put brush to paper. I feel, ponder, read, talk, then, when the idea surfaces, I draw. This conceptual process involves a busy melange of stuff, which eventually materialises.
I work fast and energetically. In a day, I can almost have three large works complete. I find that this is the most honest and unobstructed way for me to produce work. Over-thinking has always been a hindrance to an authentic practise.
I spend quite a bit of time cutting up large sheets, or strips of paper, and pinning them to walls. I add length to my brushes by taping them together. This gives me distance and allows me to use whole arm movements. I tend to spend more time looking and less time applying ink. Overdoing my drawing is my biggest dread.
How do you feel about Kevin Rudd's PNG solution?
Disappointed and disheartened. It's an 'out of sight, out of mind' approach which is not a solution. It simply satisfies the momentary political campaign need by Rudd - a politcal stunt putting him in the same camp as the Coalition. It is not addressing the many complex and dire needs of asylum seekers. Exisiting within PNG, it will add challenges and unrest. It's a 'passing the buck' solution.
How do you feel about living in Australia in 2013?
I have been feeling ashamed about being part of a country where both Labour and Liberal provide inhumane 'solutions'. I want all Australians to embrace our cultural diversity and welcome those in need.
What are the positive for asylum seekers?
It's quite grim for asylum seekers. The asylum seekers I have met are amazingly positive, resilient individuals. They are the embodiment of positivity - without this they would remain in troubled homelands. It's interesting to note that those people who have the strength, determination and vision to escape persecution have those same qualities which we value most in our country. They hold the positives. Relying on Australian leaders is out of the question.
Are you hopeful that Australia can become a more empathetic nation?
Absolutely, I can't help but hope for the situation to improve. As long as there are Australians who continue to question, listen and empathise, there is hope.
I Want My Mum To Come is showing through to September 7 2013.
McGlade Gallery hours: 11- 4 Monday to Saturday.