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Art, the uncontainable other in contemporary

detention camps.



Written by Renata Summo-O'Connell


i. Over the last twenty-five years, an increasing number of environmental and political migrants have reached the

shores of many world countries, from Europe to Australia. According to official UNCHR figures, over sixty-five

million people are displaced around the world, over twenty-two million refugees, ten million stateless people and

only around one hundred ninety thousand the resettled refugees.[1] An indeterminate number of these are artists.



During this dramatic prolonged period, a common denominator amongst many refugees’ host countries policies, despite their apparently different political persuasions, is the similar exclusionary policy implemented in regards to refugees’ settlement. Drastic confinement of refugees, labelled asylum seekers if not illegal immigrants, has created the contemporary condition of refugees as people indefinitely suspended in time, restricting their lives within detention camps, often for years. The average time a refugee spends in a detention camp is approximately four years, although recent UNHCR statistics show that such period can extend to over twenty years.[2]


In Australia, refugees’ confinement locations have been pushed beyond the boundaries of the actual mainland, placing refugees in Christmas Island (Australian territory), Manus Island (Papua New Guinea), Nauru (an independent state in Central Pacific). These Pacific islands have been theatres of an all too real tragedy investing the lives of mainly young families and young individuals who escaped some of the harshest oppressive regimes, from Iran to Myanmar, from Iraq to Kurdish oppressed enclaves, only to end up confined in Australian asylum seekers detention centres. What the UNHCR calls protracted refugee situation, is now extending over a four years period for over two thousand detainees still in refugee status in Papua New Guinea territories.[3]


As in other refugee camps in the world, a number of visual and performing artists, writers and film makers are present also among the detainees held in Australian detention camps, artists who have continued to produce work, even in their new extremely challenging conditions.[4]


Such conditions have been deemed by two United Nations agencies and many humanitarian organizations as gravely concerning, actually leading to widespread condemnation of the Australian government for its policies, considering its detention policies and practices as inhumane, abusive, traumatic.[5] Censorship and violation of human rights have therefore acquired added meaning as the average refugees’ protracted stay in detention centres becomes even more limiting of the interned artists’ lives and work.


In conditions reminiscent of second world war concentration camps, beyond the restriction of freedom, life in detention has currently encompassed an experience of ineluctable loss, due to the utter uncertainty of one’s future, since the detained artists' fate is never clear, despite their need for safety after escaping from tragedy and war.


ii. The UNHCR has conducted many inquiries in camps internationally but only their 2011 report carries out an exhaustive research and analysis concerning professional artists’ presence and life in camps.[6]


As the report states, and as my research shows, scarce media and scholarly attention have focused on artists in camps. Except for the rare Cinderella stories, as the 2011 UNHCR study refers to them,[7] referring to ex refugees who have gained notoriety largely for sponsorship of well-known artists, or thanks to the media, generally, the reality of art production in captivity is largely overlooked.


As curator of a Europe based contemporary art project, having worked and studied in Australia for twenty years, I was particularly struck by the Australian detention camps’ case and the presence of artists within them, as a more than symbolic effort to control the uncontainable other[8] to use an expression by Ghassan Hage. The relationship between the detainees’ artistic production and their personal catastrophes, intertwined with entire nations and territories’ destinies, had become an upheaval unfolding well beyond the refugees ‘initial escape from war and oppression, thanks to the prolonged confinement determined for them by a democratically elected government like the Australian administration is. It seemed too strident to be happening but poetry and music by refugee artists began to appear regularly via social networks, despite the harshest of conditions. The majority of Muslim faith detainees, or simply detainees from Islamic countries of origin, but not necessarily Muslims themselves, provided substance to the construction of a racism fuelled image of finally contained wolves. Thanks to the political rhetoric as well as some of the media interpretation of international terrorism, the detention centres were portrayed as a terrorist breeding lone wolves’ humus, alive and well amongst refugees, aptly called asylum seekers to dismiss and erase their refugee status. More importantly, an assumption, legacy of the most exquisite racist theory, became gradually a shared notion whereas the asylum seekers are also specimen of the unintegrable other, again using a Hage definition, to be kept confiscated from history, as a temporary property seized from the inconvenient disasters they flee from. Detention camps are the place where their unintegrability is sanctioned and affirmed as policy for all to see and learn.


Over a period that became years, as I incredulously kept monitoring the situation, as well as many other international observers, the Australian government prolonged and increasingly complicated the harrowing conditions of detainees, men, women and children, who were moved from Pacific island to Pacific Island, with the 2016 notable ruling by the Papua New Guinea Supreme Court stating as unconstitutional the presence of Australian detention camps on its territory,[9] followed by an Australian declaration of the legitimate contrary in 2017.[10] However nobody predicted the active voice of some artists who were and are amongst the detainees.


The patience of the disaster, as Blanchot calls it,[11] transpired through the music and words by artists detained in Christmas and Manus islands, as thanks to their cell phones the refugees were able to communicate via social platforms to large audiences. Statements by detained poet, journalist and film maker Behrouz Boochani in his dialogue with Melbourne based writer Arnold Zable,[12] referring to his poetry and his survival in camps ( he went from Christmas Island to Manus Island), brought to mind Blanchot’s idea that the disaster leads us to expect nothing of the world, as we disengage from the idea of order, of regularity guaranteed by the law on one hand,[13] and the infinite sentence of the disaster on the other, as in the disaster there seems to be no law, no order, but only the transgression in the absence of any prohibition, which eventually freezes into Law, the Principle of Meaning.[14] Boochani in his dialogue with Zable, speaks in fact of a republic that breaks all borders, referring to Australia and its politics of refugees’ confinement, but also of the imperative to survive through writing:


Another point is that I struggle in writing, and I feel alive while I'm struggling ... I have learnt in this prison that I have to make the harsh situation, and the suffering, softer through poetry. At the same time, I have to be strong to survive ... It looks like a paradox that you can be soft and strong, but this is how I understand the meaning of life … I don't say that this is an absolutely correct understanding, but it has helped me to survive in this prison.[15]


Aware of the ongoing artistic production of musicians, writers and film makers in the Australian detention camps, (see next section), I struggled with different notions of disaster as intended by Maurice Blanchot and by Jalal Toufic, in my attempt to understand what the reality of artists as people and as cultural players in protracted detainment conditions is. The disappointment produced by the disaster of fleeing the home country followed by detention, the disaster not fulfilling expectations, its inability to provide orientation, the remote distance of the detainee from the star of freedom, that according to Blanchot produces a suppression of desire given the unattainability of one’s objective, the ceaseless fall outside the attainable and the possible,[16] transpire poignantly through rapper detainee’s words, Moz: I don’t know how I could survive in this place… sometimes I feel that all of us refugees are dead, it is just our soul.[17] The lines are from the lyrics of a collaborative song writing effort between Moz, held in the Manus Island camp, and artists living free in Australia, a rap song, All the Same, was recorded and widely disseminated.[18] Mostafa, or 'Moz', in fact, recorded his singing on a mobile phone, as well as images for the music video. Thanks to QC Julian Burnside's asylum letter writing project, Moz was put into contact with a group of Australian musicians. A collaboration began between Moz and the musicians coordinated by Dr Emma O'Brien, a specialist in collaborative song- writing based in Australia. The complete orchestral hip-hop track was released on Wednesday 30th August within the Queensland Poetry Festival's Through the Wire event.[19]



iii. Poet and film maker Behrouz Boochani, the Kurdish man detained on Manus Island since fleeing Iran for Australia in 2013, has recently co-directed and produced a film, "Chauka, Please Tell us the Time”, (2016). He did so in captivity, escaping guards’ supervision, struggling with a poor Internet connection, thus with considerable difficulty, gradually sending images from the Manus Island detention camp, via his cell phone, to Iranian Dutch director Arash Kamali Sarvestani living in the Netherlands.


Chauka is therefore a work of art produced under extremely tough conditions, in a detention camp, by one of his authors, still detained, whilst the film has been shown to international film festivals around the world, from the BFI London International Film Festival, to Cambridge, Berlin and Göteborg, to Sydney, Canberra and Adelaide festivals, gaining various awards, including the Amnesty International 2017 Media Awards.


The role of smartphone technology, supported by the world wide web, is manifest in this contemporary battle between artistic discourse and powerful oppression. However, even more evident is the creative alliance strategy between the artist detainee, in this case Behrouz Boochani, and the free artist outside the camp, in this case Dutch Iranian film director Arash Kamali Sarvestani. Like rapper Moz, who released his song in collaboration with musicians based in Australia, the inexpressible narrative of the disaster is what escapes the very possibility of experience, as the disaster de-scribes, the limit of writing becomes apparent, at once testimony and fiction.[20] Passivity and writing for Blanchot are related since they both require erasure, the extenuation of the subject, and both require a change in time.[21]



It is not surprising that the first action of the Papua New Guinea's police in regards to Boochani, in occasion of a recent blitz of their units in the camp,[22] was to arrest him and remove his cell phone, reproaching him for having given their country "a bad name". I am not sure if the PNG police had the opportunity to watch Chauka, however the wide exposure of the detainees’ conditions, thanks to their writing on social networks, had by then been covered by news rooms all over the world and Boochani was released, somehow a mobile device was returned or given to him, thus making it possible for Boochani to continue his writing for various international journals and newspapers.[23]


Chauka, Please Tell us the Time synopsis will provide a clearer context to what I propose to discuss. The film introduces the Manus Island detention residential complex life where, since 2013, the Australian Government has been imprisoning refugees arrived by boat to the region. The detention camp includes a solitary confinement cell called Chauka. Chauka is actually a place of horrors, where many of the detainees have endured dreadful experiences narrated in the film to Boochani, who receives their accounts for an Australian journalist who is visiting the Manus Island camp. She requires help in accessing as much information as possible about life in the camp. The same visiting Australian journalist will also discover what Chauka means for the local people in Manus. Chauka is also the name of a bird found only on the Island, symbol of the island and of its flag. In the film, the Australian journalist interviews various people, including the local inhabitants. Boochani and the visiting journalist scrutinise the detention camp situation, life in the camp, the constant tension between Australia and PNG due to the camps’ presence on the island, Manusians’ treatment by Australians, the locals’ reaction to the detainees’ presence and of their camp on their island.


What emerges principally, is the torture that protracted time in confinement inflicts on the detainees, the complete absence of direction and development of any prospects. The Chauka bird marks time with its song for the locals and is considered a special part of the community life.


In his speech made in occasion of the Cambridge University screening of the film in January 2018, Boochani says:


Arash and I wanted to focus on this indefinite time, and we decided the best way for us to do that was with the Chauka bird. This special bird sits every day on a coconut tree and sings, and the local people compose their daily life with its singing. When the Chauka is singing the local people know what time it is. Also, the Chauka in Manusian culture is known as a bird that can talk with people, and the elders interpret its songs. The bird has the ability to make predictions, and the elders know what Chauka is saying about the future. So, in the film we focus on Chauka not only as a bird but also as a custom and a cultural concept through which we can explain how hard it is to be in prison for an unlimited time. The custom around Chauka has this capacity to describe our situation.[24]


A deliberate choice was made by Boochani and his codirector, Arash Kamali Sarvestani to focus on this form of torture and not to report the self-harm, the violence, the frequent direct and indirect abuse taking place in the camp. However, the magnitude of the detainees’ anguish, the vehemence and ferocity of the Australian government oppression, the inhumane exploitation and appropriation of life by both Papua New Guinean and Australian authorities, are apparent in the film and have an impact on the viewer much greater than it had perhaps been envisaged by the two artists.


Within sections of the local Manus Island community, Chauka, the film arisen from the detention camp on their territory, has represented an important symbol of the ethical challenge Boochani and Sarvestani film has thrown at Papua New Guinean society as Michelle Nayahamui Rooney has recently written.[25] For Nayahamui Rooney, the Papua New Guinean government compromised shared ethical standards by accepting the political deal with the Australian government, appropriating the Chauka as a power symbol, oblivious to the tragedy of the detention centre. However, asylum seekers have sent “Chauka, in the form of a movie, into the world as a symbol of their voice and their aspirations for freedom” says Nayahamui Rooney who sees the Chauka bird as a metaphor for Manus’s moral consciousness during the period 2012–17, thus posing questions about Manus morality, customs and intersections between the states of PNG and Australia.



iv. The film is arguably a narration of disaster in Blanchot's terms, where the language chosen by film artists

Boochani and Sarvestani has been more effective than any other form of protest surrounding the Australian refugee

detainee policy, opening a new debate about the condition of refugee artists.


Writing of the disaster is what Boochani and Sarvestani attempt to do in Chauka, and, as Blanchot suggests, despite their relationship with the other detainees (Boochani’s direct relationship, whilst for Sarvestani it is evidently an indirect relationship), the actual attempt places them at the heart of the paradox of the disaster. For Blanchot in fact, writing of the disaster is in itself an impossible gesture, as writing from the position of the I about the disaster is simply not possible:


The disaster does not put me into question, but annuls the question, makes it disappear - as if along with the question, “I “too disappeared in the disaster which never appears. The fact of disappearing is, precisely, not a fact, not an event: it does not happen, not only because there is no “I” to undergo the experience, but because (and this is exactly what presupposition means), since the disaster always takes place after having taken place, there cannot possibly be any experience of it.[26]


The paradox of the disaster is that its narrator is excluded from experiencing it in the struggle of the self to recuperate its agency after having survived the disaster. The desire to understand, to confer some sense to the senseless disaster, takes place, centre stage, in writing, as to write is to affirm the self in relationship to others. Boochani and Sarvestani narration is, like Derrida suggested, at the same time, testimony and fiction.[27] Their poetic choice allows for an account of the magnitude of the disaster even if that choice excludes the most evident forms of the refugees’ loss and pain, the blood and the wounds. Jalal Toufic's concept of art's role after the withdrawal of tradition before a surpassing disaster, involves an "additional immaterial withdrawal of literary, philosophical and thoughtful texts as well as of certain films, videos, and musical works, notwithstanding that copies of these continue to be physically available".[28] The Manus Island detention camp, now for ever present in the film Chauka Please Tell us the Time, the lives of the detainees, the strong message sent out of captivity and shown in free cities around the world, is the development of a state that is central to this reflection. The catastrophe of loss of freedom is the state of disaster we are talking about.


For Toufic the surpassing disaster, although defined by specific conditions, extends its effects as:


Even those who had the fortune of not undergoing a surpassing disaster have already been ruined by the disaster Blanchot writes about; and even what has been resurrected by artists and thinkers following its withdrawal past a surpassing disaster continues to be ruined and left intact by the disaster Blanchot writes about.[29]


The surpassing disaster produces effects that surpass the material one, reverberating in immaterial outcomes. However, generating a new artistic tradition, making art in detention camps, although not reversing the disaster, is clearly prompting a new culture of collaboration between artists inside and outside the camp on one hand and, rippling out in the wider society, is instigating critical resistance in the wider society on the other hand.



v. Artistic events for refugees in camps and artists production in camps are two different activities. Professional refugee artists do exist, they are active in numerous camps around the world, so much so that humanitarian agencies have been encouraged by the quoted UNHCR 2011 report to define and implement ways to foster the development and work of refugee artists. From Boochani, Moz and other artists' experience in Manus Island, Christmas Island and Nauru, despite long years of isolation, it is apparent that skilled artists in camps do contribute in poignant ways not only to their own welfare but also to the cultural and social good of both refugee and host communities.


Most importantly, their ongoing artistic production, undoubtedly facilitated by the existence of the world wide web, challenges exclusionary policies as well as assumptions of passivity and dependence on host communities. With Chauka, for example, a work of art has overcome an apparently insurmountable obstacle, oppressive captivity and isolation, to reach audiences internationally. In many other cases, in refugee camps around the world, refugee artists have used their competencies and skills to look for employment outside the camp. The said UNHCR report reports numerous instances that show that the assumption refugees are draining on host communities is completely unfounded, adding that many artists in camps have served as mentors and leaders within refugee camps. The same report states that current policies adopted by host countries restricting refugee mobility, employment and remuneration, simply segregate artists and stop them not only from practicing their professions but also from providing their contribution to the host regions on economic and cultural levels. Artists in refugee camps have an unexploited potential connecting communities within and beyond camp barriers, however equally significant would be the recognition and inclusion of artists’ work in the wider artists community.



vi. Not all artists find the strength to keep expressing their art. As Tim Costello recently reported, one of the Manus Island detainees, Karam, a poet arrested for publishing poetry in Kurdish, is now a man depleted of any hope, just as many of the other detainees,[30] a man who has not seen his four years old son, who speaks via Skype with his family still in Iran, who has no hope to reunite with his family for another eight years, even if he accepted to stay in Papua New Guinea. Karam’s sadness is so profound that, amongst other things, he does not write any longer.


There are no studies and no current observations on what impact fleeing one’ country produces in an artist, what captivity in refugee camps generates in an artist’ creative production. Referring to Toufic earlier I said that the surpassing disaster produces effects that surpass the material one, reverberating in immaterial outcomes: equally, host countries are perfectly free to arrest such reverberation, to revert the course of history. As Donna Haraway advocates, making kin is a choice we could make in the troublesome moment in which we are, the response-ability we hold. This is why I have written this article.[31]




Renata Summo-O'Connell is the Director of Artegiro Contemporary Art, www.artegiro.com She is currently conducting research for the PhD degree in Sociolinguistics and Gender Studies at the University of Melbourne, Australia.






[1] UNHCR (19 June 2017) Figures at a Glance. http://www.unhcr.org/figures-at-a-glance.html

[2] UNHCR GLOBAL TRENDS 2016, p.22 http://www.unhcr.org/5943e8a34.pdf

[3] This was the situation at the time of my writing this piece. Data by Refugee Council of Australia (2017) https://www.refugeecouncil.org.au/getfacts/statistics/aust/dibp-2016-2017/

[4] For UNCHR recorded cases, please see the following sites and links: http://www.unhcr.org/news/stories/2015/7/56ec1e9d22/the-artists- way.html?query=artists

http://www.unhcr.org/news/videos/2018/1/5a6721654/syrian-refugee-artist-in-northern-ireland-paints-his- onward-journey.html?query=artists

http://www.unhcr.org/news/stories/2016/9/57b45b204/quiet-librarian-outspoken-syrian-artist- form-unlikely-bond.html?query=artists

http://www.unhcr.org/news/stories/2012/4/4f8551129/portrait-iraqi-artist-refugee- tunisia.html?query=artists

http://www.unhcr.org/news/stories/2009/9/4a9e8ac99/iraqi-artist-departs-new-life-united- states.html?query=artists

http://www.unhcr.org/news/videos/2017/6/595600824/artist-trung-draws-on-his-experience-as-a-refugee-annie-sakkab- camera.html?query=artists

http://www.unhcr.org/news/latest/2004/1/400fea6b4/paint-gain-afghan-artist-ukraine.html?query=artists

[5] Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Concluding observations on the fifth periodic report of Australia (11 July 2017) p.4; UNHCR chief Filippo Grandi calls on Australia to end harmful practice of offshore processing (24 July 2017) http://www.unhcr.org/en- au/news/press/2017/7/597217484/unhcr-chief-filippo-grandi-calls-australia-end-harmful-practice-offshore.html

[6] UNITED NATIONS HIGH COMMISSIONER FOR REFUGEES POLICY DEVELOPMENT AND EVALUATION SERVICE (PDES) (2011) Positive energy. A review of the role of artistic activities in refugee camps. http://www.unhcr.org/research/evalreports/4def858a9/positive-energy-review- role-artistic-activities-refugee-camps-awet-andemicael.html?query=artists

[7] Idem, p.34

[8] Hage Ghassan (2017) Is racism and environmental threat. Polity Press, Cambridge, UK, p. 37.

[9] Tlozek Eric, Anderson Stephanie (26 April 2016) PNG's Supreme Court rules detention of asylum seekers on Manus Island is illegal. ABC News Website: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-04-26/png-court-rules-asylum-seeker-detention-manus-island-illegal/7360078

[10] Doherty Ben (17 August 2017) High court upholds Australia's right to send asylum seekers to Papua New Guinea. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2017/aug/17/high-court-upholds-australias-right-to-send-asylum-seekers-to-papua-new- guinea

[11] Blanchot, Maurice (1995) The Writing of the Disaster. Trans. Anne Smock. University of Nebraska, Lincoln and London. p. 75

[12] Zable, Arnold (23 December 2017) 'This republic breaks all borders': a dialogue with Behrouz Boochani on Manus. Sydney Morning Herald. http://www.smh.com.au/national/this-republic-breaks-all-borders-a-dialogue-with-behrouz-boochani-on-manus-20171220- h08bx1.html

[13] Blanchot, Maurice (1995) The Writing of the Disaster. Trans. Anne Smock. University of Nebraska, Lincoln and London. p. 75

[14] Idem.

[15] Zable, Arnold (23 December 2017) 'This republic breaks all borders': a dialogue with Behrouz Boochani on Manus. Sydney Morning Herald. http://www.smh.com.au/national/this-republic-breaks-all-borders-a-dialogue-with-behrouz-boochani-on-manus-20171220- h08bx1.html

[16] Blanchot, Maurice (1995) The Writing of the Disaster. Trans. Anne Smock. University of Nebraska, Lincoln and London. Pp. 48-49

[17] Moz account of life in the camp recording (2017) on http://www.ourhumanity.xyz/messages-from-moz/

[18] Media Release Wednesday, 30 August, 2017 “Help us keep our sanity, remember our humanity.” Asylum Seeker ‘Moz’ releases song recorded in Manus Island detention centre. http://www.ourhumanity.xyz/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/MEDIA-RELEASE-Asylum-Seeker- %E2%80%98Moz%E2%80%99-releases-song-recorded-in-Manus-Island-detention-centre-.pdf

[19] From 3CR Radio, Song From Manus ( Sunday, 10 September 2017) http://www.3cr.org.au/refugeeradioshow/episode- 201709101000/song-manus

[20] Blanchot, Maurice (1995) The Writing of the Disaster. Trans. Anne Smock. University of Nebraska, Lincoln and London. Pp. 6,7.

[21] Blanchot, Maurice, p.14.

[22] Papua New Guinea police irrupted in the camp as a group of detainees refused to leave the premises after the Australian government had to vacate the premises since the PNG government had declared such camps unconstitutional. See: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/nov/23/manus-island-png-police-move-into-detention-centre-and-tell-refugees-to-leave?CMP=share_btn_tw

https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2017/nov/23/refugee-and-journalist-behrouz-boochani- arrested-in-manus-as-squad-steps-in

[23] Boochani has written a number of articles in journals and newspapers from the detention camp. See: Boochani, Behrouz (27 November 2016). "The day my friend Hamid Kehazaei died". The Guardian; Boochani, Behrouz (4 March 2016). "Life on Manus: island of the damned". The Saturday Paper; Boochani, Behrouz (1 November 2016). "Untitled". Cordite Poetry Review; "The Black Kite and the Deep Dark by Behrouz Boochani". PEN International: Chauka, Please Tell Us the Time, Documentary Film, 2017; "Australia, Exceptional in its Brutality", in Overland, 25 April 2016.

[24] Behrouz Boochani Facebook  post  17.1.2018. https://www.facebook.com/BehrouzBoochaniJournalist/posts/325405521278163

[25] Michelle Nayahamui Rooney (2017) Chauka, Yu We. Griffith Review Edition 59: Commonwealth Now https://griffithreview.com/articles/chauka-yu-we/

[26] Blanchot, Maurice (1995) The Writing of the Disaster. Trans. Anne Smock. University of Nebraska, Lincoln and London, p.28.

[27] Jacques Derrida (1998) Demeure. Editions Galilée, Paris.

[28] Jalal Toufic (2009 ) Over Sensitivity, Second Electronic Version, http://www.jalaltoufic.com/downloads/Jalal_Toufic,_Over_Sensitivity.pdf p. 57

[29] Jalal Toufic (2009) The withdrawal of tradition past a surpassing disaster. ISBN: 978-9953-0-1492-0: pp.81-82

[30] 'Help us': the Australian-made purgatory of Manus drains the refugees of hope (16 Jan 2018, Tim Costello- https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2018/jan/16/help-us-the-australian-made-purgatory-of-manus-drains-the-refugees-of-hope

[31] Haraway Donna (2016) Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press, Durham and London.







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