Australia: asylum and art

This is not a story about art depicting the asylum process, or about asylum seekers making art, but rather about the sinister connection between art sponsorship and the provision of detention services, or more specifically, about the close, and abhorrent, link between the Sydney Biennale and its founder patron, Transfield Services (Australia).

The Biennale of Sydney, to be held this year between March 21 and June 9 2014, is an international festival of contemporary art, held every two years. It is the largest and best-attended contemporary visual arts event in Australia and, alongside the Venice and São Paulo biennales and Documenta, it is one of the longest running exhibitions of its kind and was the first biennale to be established in the Asia-Pacific region.

Since 2010, Transfield Services (Australia) has held a series of contracts for ‘Garison and welfare services’ with the Australian Government’s Department of Immigration and Border Protection totalling over $340 million. Since 2013 it has a further series of contracts: in February 2013 for $175 million, and another interim contract announced in January 2014 whose scope extends beyond providing services by Transfield for the Melbourne and Nauru detention centres to the refugee detention centre located on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea. Put simply, Transfield’s involvement in migration detention has massively expanded in both dollar terms and scope from humble beginnings of around $40,000 for grounds maintenance in the Melbourne detention centre, to contracts valued over $1bn, and Transfield is set to become the major contractor of Australia’s offshore detention centres. On 24 February 2014 it was announced thatTransfield has been granted a further contract to run maintenance, catering and security services in Manus Island and Nauru in a $1.2 bn deal in the midst of heightened public awareness of offshore detention. Thus, Transfield is clearly benefiting hugely from Australia’s Tony Abbott’s draconian policy of detaining asylum seekers off shore.

manus-asylumOnly 2 per cent of the world’s asylum applications are made in Australia. How does the fact that some 88 per cent of these applicants are recognised as refugees tally with Australia’s ‘policy innovation’, since 2013, of transferring asylum seekers who arrive by boat to an expanded facility at Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island and to the tiny Pacific island nation of Nauru for offshore processing? Indeed, Australia has one of the strictest immigration detention regimes in the world. Detention is mandatory for maritime arrivals, is not subject to a time limit, and asylum seekers arriving by boat are unable to access the courts to challenge their detention. Furthermore, asylum seekers who are found to be genuine refugees will be settled not in Australia, but in Papua New Guinea (PNG), even though the PNG government has not given its agreement. After the murder on Manus Island of asylum seeker Reza Barati by G4S security guards,  former immigration agent Liz Thompson  told SBS TV that Manus Island is not a genuine asylum processing camp, but rather an ‘experiment in horror’. And trying to reach Australia by boat is extremely hazardous: since 2009, 600 people were killed en route to Australia’s shores.

All of this makes Transfield’s sponsorship of the Sydney Biennale, and the fact that Luca Belgiorno-Nettis of Transfield is chair of the Biennale board, utterly untenable. Groups supporting asylum seekers such as Refugee Survivors and Ex-Detainees (RISE) and Border Operational Matters (, are calling on artists to boycott the biennale. As several artists have explained, Transfield is not simply funding the Biennale, it is accruing cultural value from the work and investments of artists. In other words, artists, and everyone else who helps to produce the Biennale, are contributing to Transfield’s brand, and by definition are supporting Australia’s unacceptable detention policies. In a letter to the Biennale, a group of well known artists asked that the Biennale withdraw from the current sponsorship arrangements with Transfield and seek to develop new ones.i The campaign to boycott the Sydney  Biennale is gaining momentum. Five of the 37 artists – Libia Castro, Ólafur Ólafsson, Charlie Sofo, Gabrielle de Vietri and Ahmet Öğüt – have already pulled out of the Biennale and intend to create art installations around the Biennale to raise awareness of the asylum issue and of Transfield’s involvement. The motto of the 2014 Sydney Bionnale is ‘you imagine what you desire’. I, like many others who oppose Australia’s asylum detention policy desire to imagine a world without detention. What would you do?