This article appears in print in Happy Mag Issue 9. Grab your copy here.
All We Can’t See: Illustrating the Nauru Files is an initiative and exhibition conceived and curated by Arielle Gamble. It’s a powerful depiction of The Nauru Files, a charter of leaked documents pertaining to inmates of Australia’s offshore detention centre.
The files are a stark encyclopaedia of human trauma; a collection of entries describing self-harm, child abuse, and mass suicide. Arielle’s mission statement has become the translation of these files into the visual, helped by a handful of Australia’s most talented artists.
After meeting an overwhelming first response in Sydney, her exhibition now has its sights set on Melbourne Art Week on July 31st. Additionally, musicians such as Paul Kelly, Kate Miller-Heidke, Lisa Mitchell and more are throwing in their voices – see below for a series of self-shot videos in which they narrate the files themselves.
Moreover, today marks exactly five years since the Australian government ruled in favour of indefinite detention for refugees. In light of it all, we sat down with Arielle.
WARNING: The content of this article may distress some readers.
These are the documents nobody wanted you to see. Two years after their release, Arielle Gamble will stop at nothing to place The Nauru Files into the public eye.
HAPPY: Hey Arielle, thanks for your time. Can you tell us about how All We Can’t See started?
ARIELLE: It started by reading the Nauru files after they were published by the Guardian in August 2016. There has been extreme censorship placed around offshore detention from the get-go – workers speaking out about what they witnessed could face criminal charges and two years in jail. So I knew it was bad, and that we were flouting international laws and obligations, but nothing prepared me for what I would read.
What the files revealed was horrific; children self-harming with razor blades, men stitching their lips together, women being raped. People swallowing bleach, rat poison, screws, rocks. Nooses made out of tent ropes. Children made up only one fifth of the population on the island but were over-represented in more than half the files.
I was devastated, I can still remember the hollowness of that realisation; these incidents weren’t the result of a foreign warlord or a faraway militia, they were the results of the policies of my own government, they were happening in my name. 88% of people vetted on Nauru have been determined to be legitimate refugees, unable to return home for fear of persecution or death, and legally entitled to our protection. I realised I was accountable.
Though many people heard about the files, the clinical language and the overwhelming number of them seemed to make them impenetrable to many. Countless conversations revealed lots of people had heard of them – few had actually read them.
The Liberals senator charged with responding to the files on behalf of the Coalition – former senator Ian Macdonald – described them as “hype, trifling at best”, while admitting he hadn’t read them. I could not believe that those in charge could dismiss primary evidence with such ease and get away with it, I was appalled that our processes could have become so corrupted.
Around that time, I read an essay by Richard Flanagan called Does Writing Matter. He wrote about the files as “the most extraordinary trove of short stories” and said that if there was just one picture – of a woman just raped, of the bloodied back of murdered Reza Berati’s head, that we would face “a national crisis of honour, of meaning, of identity”.
My background is in books and illustration, so I am well versed in using imagery to connect people with stories, sometimes dark and difficult ones. What was missing from these conversations was an understanding of shared humanity. It had been deliberately and carefully stamped out by successive governments, so how could we reintroduce it?
Well, here were 2,116 stories defining modern Australian history. We need to read them in order to understand what is happening, not just on Manus and Nauru, but also what is happening to us, who we are becoming as a nation. How do you connect people with these stories when words aren’t working? When language has become too seeped in prejudice to cut through? You use imagery. It can slice through all of that and speak directly to the heart. That is the power of art.
I took this idea to an old friend and colleague, Daniel New, with him it solidified, Human Rights Watch came on board, an amazing woman called Morna Seres helped give the concept shape and authority, and it started to take off.
Underpinning this project is a belief that Australians are at heart decent and compassionate people who, if they knew just how horrific – if they empathised with the kid who is self-harming, the man who has lost all hope and tries to hang himself from his mouldy tent, the woman who reports being told she can have a longer shower in return for sexual favours with the guards – would demand change. In darker hours I waver but I do still have faith in this. I believe most people want to be good, to be kind. Sometimes we need a wake-up call though.
HAPPY: What’s your artistic background?
ARIELLE: Book designer, illustrator, artist. I did begin studying different degrees in law and social enquiry years ago, and though I’ve always been interested in those fields, I didn’t connect with the methodologies of either. I was drawn more to creative practices, and became more interested in design-led research and social intervention. I think it has the potential to draw out responses or foster insights in ways that more conventional practices can’t. In some ways I feel there’s a greater capacity for nuance and emotion – accessing the intangible.
HAPPY: What were some of the challenges involved in moving to a curatorial position for this project?
ARIELLE: Well I’m not a curator by trade, so quite a few. I have project managed many a large and curly endeavour in the past, but a lot has been learnt on the go. I try to seek out as much advice from as broad a range of people as I can, to question myself and welcome criticism, and I’ve been lucky to be supported by a broad and multi-skilled community in doing so. Naivety isn’t always such a bad thing, I don’t think. It allows you to bite off a lot, and forces you to work it out.
HAPPY: Who has helped you bring All We Can’t See together?
ARIELLE: So many people. The first Sydney show I worked with Daniel New, Georgie Bright from Human Rights Watch, Morna Seres and Heidi Forbes. Daniel was my old art director at Penguin books and came on at the beginning to develop the idea, Georgie saw the potential in a partnership with HRW, Morna who has a prolific background in the arts signed up as a volunteer because she believed in the idea and took the project to another level, and Heidi came to the project later on to support us also.
This time around it has been myself and Clare Herschell. The tour would have been dead in the water without her support. She is a philanthropist and the director of Atelier at the AGNSW. When she came to the Sydney show her response was “How can we fix it?”, and she meant that in all seriousness. She is a powerhouse of knowledge and heart, has taught me a huge amount and connected me with many of the phenomenal people involved in this next wave.
Artist Joshua Yeldham heard I was trying to fundraise and instantly offered two of his exquisite hand carved artworks to auction off to help me raise money. He had also hand illustrated special editions of his book for us. Another pal Andrew Kaineder is a filmmaker, and after watching me clunking around in iMovie with naff cross-fades took the project over entirely and made our Kickstarter video, even while juggling deadlines for his own feature film. Angus McDonald, another artist in the show as well as filmmaker and activist has constantly shown up with support in all sorts of generous ways. A lovely lady called Anna Marinovich down in Melbourne I’ve never even met has been helping out with logistics in her spare time, more friends will be loaning me equipment, helping me install, taking photos for free, there are so many people who have helped, the list goes on and on.
HAPPY: What was the response like to the first exhibition?
ARIELLE: Much larger than I anticipated, we were happy it gained a lot of media traction, that these stories made their way into major news channels, and that people in the show who had lived this experience first-hand had a platform to speak about them too.
At the show itself, people mostly walked slowly from work to work, reading the file each work related to in full, and then onto the next. It took time. We all witnessed people leaving in tears. Everyone looked shaken, like they needed a hug. One immaculate looking older woman walked up to us, her face wet and distraught, and said “I just didn’t know”. But I think that’s good. It means that it woke people up, and made them hold themselves accountable. That’s what we all need to do.
HAPPY: Do you remember the first file you read?
ARIELLE: A young boy who had sewn a heart in his hand and said he didn’t know why (below).
HAPPY: Is your goal to illustrate all 2,116 files?
ARIELLE: We have built a website capable of hosting that. I hope the camps will close before we get to that though.
HAPPY: These videos are a new aspect, can you talk about their place in the exhibition and how they came together?
ARIELLE: Down in Melbourne a couple of months ago I was talking to the lovely singer Lisa Mitchell about getting involved in some way, thinking about musicians, how the project could grow beyond visual arts. We were thinking maybe a song but couldn’t see it clearly, and then this simple idea emerged a while later – why not just ask folk to film themselves reading files aloud – by doing so bringing them into the light, and asking other Australians to face them too. I think once again, the number of folk who signed up testifies to how many Australians are appalled about what people are suffering on Manus and Nauru because of us, and want to speak out about it.
HAPPY: What about the written word inspires you?
ARIELLE: Storytelling is one of our oldest human traditions. It fosters empathy and understanding. Helps us not to repeat the mistakes of history. Most classic literature reinforces basic principles of morality; compassion, humility, solidarity, kindness. It also warns us against the dangers of power; hubris, prejudice, greed. It can reflect our own societies back to us, even when we don’t want to see.
HAPPY: These files aren’t written by professionals or artists, they’re almost scientific. What does this add to the exhibition?
ARIELLE: Well, it’s not a device. It starts and ends with the stories, the Nauru files. They’re not fiction, they’re incident reports written by staff on the island, transcribed and sorted into incident types and risk ratings by Wilsons Security, and then the names were redacted in order to be published by The Guardian.
However, though written in the stark official language of a corrupt system, names redacted, humanity still makes its way in, and we empathise.
HAPPY: What would be the biggest win for you to come from this?
ARIELLE: Our project serving as a platform for the increasing number of Australians outraged at what’s happening in our name to demand concrete policy change to close the camps and bring the people to immediate safety here or in NZ or America.
I see this happening through 3 tiers: transparency, accountability and compassion.
- I think we can tear at the veil of secrecy that’s been placed over offshore detention and bring the brutal and unacceptable realities of it into light.
- We can arm people with this knowledge to inspire personal and public accountability.
- We can serve as a proud reassertion of the value of compassion. I utterly reject Dutton’s absurd and demeaning claim that one act of compassion would destabilise our national security. History has taught us that a nation without compassion is a broken and dangerous one. The equation that you must cause the slow death of one innocent group of people in order to stop the death of a larger, hypothetical group of people is utterly false, and it is obscene that we as a nation have digested this baseless rhetoric for so long.
HAPPY: In what ways will the Melbourne exhibition be different to the first?
ARIELLE: Many new amazing artists have signed up to take part so it’s quite a different roster, and it will also include works from the website and works from school students from around Australia who’ve also come on board and produced some very moving artworks. Melbourne is the next step in what’s becoming a growing visual petition by our nation’s communities and leading creatives calling for an end to offshore detention and the reinstatement of compassion in immigration policy.
HAPPY: Are there plans to take the exhibition further?
ARIELLE: Yes, we have plans to take it to Adelaide at the end of the year, all we can say for now, but will be able to share details soon.
HAPPY: How can members of the public help your cause?
ARIELLE: Please donate to our Kickstarter! It’s not for profit and relying on support from our community. Sales from the show will go to support Human Rights Law Centre.
This article appears in print in Happy Mag Issue 9. Grab your copy here.