Burning The Boat

Early last Wednesday morning, before sunrise, I drove to a small beach in Northern New South Wales with a handful of artists and students. We had been invited to the burning of a boat, the next phase of an art project by Sha Sarwari, a former Hazara asylum seeker from Afghanistan and graduate of Griffith University [Queensland College of Art]. Sha has become a close friend over the past 3- 4 years through his work which I see as a very public journaling of his journey from asylum seeker/ refugee/detainee to Australian citizen and justice advocate. When not caring for his new son and developing his arts practice, he works as an interpreter for asylum seekers and detainees under the Australian Government’s “pacific solution.”

As I crept around the house at 2.30am I found myself in some kind of imagined world where Sha and other asylum seekers were quietly leaving a coastal village in Indonesia to board a boat only twice as big as his sculptural work. For 5 days – and one day with a broken down motor – they sailed across calm seas towards Australia and finally to a confrontation with an Australian customs vessel. Christmas Island and then Curtin detention centre led finally to his release and approval of his application for asylum. This was before Kevin Rudd’s pacific solution and the inevitable different trajectory of his life had he attempted asylum in 2016.

A full moon sunk majestically down on a still and glorious morning beach as the grey lights of dawn filtered up over the horizon and the moment of burning arrived. The symbolism of the burning was wrapped up in the theatre of the event as the turps fuelled paper and cardboard fire took hold. Sha invited me to pour the turps on the vessel with him and so it seemed like baptism, a preparation for death and rebirth. The moment had a deeply spiritual sensibility about it for me. There was a sensual almost romantic element to this morning’s fire on the beach and Sha’s walk to the water’s edge evoked images of New Testament mythology around the Jesus person’s post resurrection breakfast on a secluded stretch of Palestinian sea with his friends.

As we watched in a mesmerised trance fueled by metaphor, symbolism, tragedy, determination, kindness and luck Sha’s palpable relief broke into a smile on his handsome face. There was no closure, a word only applicable to doors, but there was a sense of being in a liminal space a space opened through this threshold experience.

The cooling embers were smothered in water and sand but not before a couple of kilograms were gathered into bowls for the next project – an ash brick.

The art making process seems to be a never ending exercise if both the aesthetic and emerging story are held as unfolding chapters. It is possible that in the attempt to construct meaning an essence statement or position arrives and there is an approximation to meaning but until that moment the making must continue to validate its beginning. My view that cultural and spiritual inquiry must be inextricably tied to the infinite creative core to hold their integrity and authenticity has Sha’s project as a fine example. There is yet more to be told of this man’s courage, pain, grief and growth and we do well to take our time to be present both to him and his work slowly and with respect and humility. The lesson is that if we are sidetracked as artists, designers, makers and collectors into only the ephemeral and utilitarian then our output and contribution to bringing understanding, meaning and depth to ourselves and our culture will be diluted.

Sha added another element to this story on the beach as the boat was burning down to the sand. It seem that the burning ritual had set him free to tell me another chapter. His cousin had wanted to come to Australia from a refugee camp in Pakistan and to do as Sha had done, come by boat. Sha had discouraged the boat idea but in a horrible twist of fate his cousin was killed in a suicide bombing in a pool room on his way home with friends. He had been in the room when the first bomb went off and as he went to help the wounded, the second bomb was detonated – a well tried terrorist strategy – and he was killed. The ash brick is, I suspect, part of a memory shrine for Sha and his family.

Peter Breen 2016