Finding Refuge[es] in Art

This is the edited version of the opening speech I gave at Jugglers Art Space on September 3, 2016 at the “Refugees Exhibition”.

“If our life is poured out in useless words

We will never hear anything

and in the end,

because we have said everything

before we had anything to say,

we shall be left speechless

at the moment of our greatest decision. “

Thomas Merton, American Mystic and Trappist Monk, Peace activist and anti-nuclear campaigner who died in a tragic accident in Bangkok, 1968 at 53.

As  a disciplined hermit and mystic, Merton, in advocating silence as the only way to approach and maybe touch mystery which he saw as the edge of god, or god’s thin whisper, continues to have a profound impact on genuine spiritual inquirers and social activists.

His life of inner dwelling was wrapped in nature in his hermitage in Kentucky, USA. While for a busy person the desire for this as an essential for the hearing of the whisper is almost impossible my intentional experiencing of silence in constant search for the thin whisper was given some time in the nurturing areas of Connemara and Kerry, Eire.

Art, when it springs from silence and mystery, pain and suffering either voluntarily or involuntarily is, in whatever form, however naive or sophisticated, affecting. It will and does have something to say to those who listen.

That is why this event, so wonderfully conceived of and managed and curated by Jugglers QUT intern Moojhan Kheiri – is so important.

In this room  “the words of the prophets [are]written on the [subway] walls” are the “Sounds of Silence”

You have come here tonight as artists, former refugees and asylum seekers, friends, family and supporters to see, to support and more than that I hope to hear, listen and sense what these artists are saying so cogently even if it takes time to find the spaces where the whisper lives.

Art exhibitions can easily be decoration or they can be banging a wedge into wall crevices  to open up the possibility of that thin whisper from the heart and pain and voice of the artist. That is what this exhibition is.

The art can be collectible, it can be ugly, it can be beautiful [in the narrow sense of that word] it can be dark, it can be light but if it is more than decoration then it will be arresting, grabbing, silencing.

This exhibition is all of those. We are here compelled to listen to the thin whispers and under this compelling we begin to hear a rising shout.

I returned from Ireland this morning where I was linking up with my sibblings to celebrate some milestone birthdays and to find our relatives – a good Australian thing to do. While we were there we visited Shankhill Road and Falls Road, small suburbs in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

The history of Ireland is the history of religious wars and colonisation by the British. The Irish people have fought to return to self-rule and so 100 years ago this year the Easter Rising in Dublin saw the start of the last revolution that led to the establishment of the Republic of Ireland in 1922. But the British, after handing back the South, kept a foothold with the annexation of Northern Ireland. With the Northern Ulster groups mainly Protestant and pro-British, the Catholic Sien Fein and now demobilised IRA presence in the North continuing to agitate for a total end to British rule the conflict continues. In this conflict two very famous roads/suburbs in Belfast – Shankhill Road and Falls Road are full of patriotic fervour and ground holding.

Shank hill Road is pro-British and protestant.

Falls Road is anti-British and Catholic.

Right down the centre of this area is “the wall” – a 7 metre high 1o00 more long wall built by the British armed forces.

The Protestant side is constantly covered in graffiti. The Catholic side is a static exhibition space of Marxist and pro-justice workers rights murals. I could not find one tag on that section of the wall. This does not mean I am anti Marxist. Far from it but I found that the living graffiti art on the Protestant side indicated an organic development rather than a party specific one.

On the day that we visited, we were told that not so long ago – about 2 years – our Republican number plated hire cars would not have been welcome in the protestant sector.

So what has changed? Why were we allowed in now?

It seems that it is the graffiti on the Protestant side that is having the change effect. A writer who was there and who knows Jugglers alma mater Sofles, Fintan Magee and Guido van Helten and who comes from the south to run workshops with young people there told me that it has been the workshops, graffiti and art focus that has seen the reduction in slogans and the decrease in animosity as people have begun to embrace the positive affect of this arts practice. The protestant gate keepers in the houses opposite the site began to visit the site and bring beer to the artists and writers. Their view was that this art wall was the best thing that had happened for a long time as a means of peace making.

Art changes the world.

  Former refugee Sha Sarwari art installation boat burning, April, 2016.

Former refugee Sha Sarwari art installation boat burning, April, 2016.

Art creates conversation, builds respect, drives wedges to let whispers leak out, shouts to those who are listening – or not listening just as this work does here tonight.

  Brisbane trains as art canvas after the 2011 floods.

Brisbane trains as art canvas after the 2011 floods.

This exhibition, as with Amensty International’s upstairs body of work is about justice. Justice, welcome and kindness for refugees, asylum seekers and aboriginal people and children in adult jails. This is about exposing how we as a nation under our representative governments have failed to act, have failed to work from that value base of justice, kindness and welcome for all.

Art influences policy makers as it reflects values starkly and subtly.

It is critical that we celebrate these artists as significant voices, listen until the thin whispers begin to be heard, let the change change us and celebrate the artists’ skills.

- By Peter Breen