Stop the Moats: Recent work by Cecile Williams and Nick Mangan

‘He who lives on an island should not make an enemy of the ocean.’ Berlin proverb

The interregnum that followed the 2010 Federal election drew attention to the voices of Independents, speaking free of the constraints of party machines. Refreshing views came to the surface. During his campaign for election to the electorate of Port Macquarie, Rob Oakeshott questioned both party’s approach toward asylum seekers. He said, ‘If you spend time looking at it, we in Australia are the moat people.’ His point was that the natural isolation of Australia as an island continent will always temper exposure to hoards of refugees. The generous airing his views received during the tussle between Labor and the Coalition for his vote enabled him to put this phrase into the public domain repeatedly.

But ‘moat people’ has resonance beyond Oakeshott’s intention.[i] It evokes the image of the ‘big pond’—the conceit that Australia is naturally separated from its neighbours. This understanding of regional isolation has a long history. The notion of Australia as the ‘last outpost’ of the British Empire underpinned the White Australia Policy, determined to keep out those nearby.

While it might seem that much of this xenophobia is whipped up by sensationalist media, particularly the Sydney talk show hosts, the concept of ‘moat people’ strikes deep. The cultural theorist Suvrendrini Perera ties the notion of Australian ‘exceptionalism’ to the suburban tradition of the backyard. For her the quarter-acre block is ‘the little Aussie battler’s own kingdom and domain’,[ii] caught between ‘the racially charged wilderness of terra nullius on the one hand and the besieging ocean frontier on the other.’ In this picture, Australia is a backyard on a continental scale.

How do we respond to this? It seems the default position is to despair at the inherently racist nature of the Australian population and dream of a more Scandinavian liberal consensus. This is a comfortable dream. It positions those of us with university education safely above the suburban rednecks below. Still, neither of us ends up any closer to our neighbours across the water.

Two Australian artists point us in a different direction. Their work emerges from a particularly charged test of the moat people. As is legend now, in August 2001 a Norwegian vessel rescued 438 Afghan asylum seekers on their way to Christmas Island to seek refugee status. In the political storm that emerged from that incident, inflamed by the destruction of New York’s World Trade Centre, the government took various measures to protect the moat. Christmas Island was excised removing the obligation to process refugees who arrived on its territory, and eventually those aboard the Tampa were re-located to Nauru, as part of the ‘Pacific Solution’.

This kind of operation was not new to the moat people—in fact it, was how they came into being. Australia was, after all, settled as a penal colony in order to rid England of the unsightly vagrants in their midst, mostly refugees of the industrial revolution. As often happens in the post-colonial, a nation perpetrates on others the act of subjugation of which it was originally victim.

But there is a contrary strain in southern cultures like Australia which contests this hierarchy. The practice known as ‘poor craft’ collects detritus what is left over to alchemically re-create a new preciousness. ‘Poor craft’ can be seen in the fibre works of Nalda Searles, the milk bar jewellery of Roseanne Bartley and transformation of fine furniture from firewood by Damien Wright. Recently, two artists have explored the Pacific Solution and found ways of re-connecting us with its refuse.

Denmark (WA) artist Cecile Williams first visited Christmas Island in 2001 as a part of a schools circus program. This has continued in recent years and she has begun to involve local people in making costumes, sets and large scale festival puppets for their recent 50 years celebration. She is particularly attracted to Greta Beach, which receives a huge tide of plastic debris bought on from the tides of the trade winds. Once while combing the beach she found a Muslim good luck charm, used by an Indonesian fisherman to gain safe passage at sea. This prompted her to consider the stories associated with flotsam.

Back in her studio, Williams sorted through the detritus and collected ten- and twenty-litre plastic containers from her tip. With a background in puppet theatre design, she constructed dioramas to re-create diverse scenes from life on Christmas Island, including phosphate mining, the early history of the island like beriberi sickness, local Malay and Chinese culture, the Hungry Ghosts Chinese Festival, golf and the detention centres. The results were shown in the Perth International Arts Festival under the title Contained: Collected Moments from Christmas Island.

Given the subject matter, we would expect to find tragic scenes of suffering. But Contained reveals something new. The installation of nine containers called ‘Detained’ is particularly grim, featuring grills and body parts collected from washed-up toys. But I particularly like Buddhist Chant. Toothbrush heads ornament its border and the interior space is beautifully suggested by the over-sized foot, delicately constructed shrine with a yellow glow within. A stray fragment of Australia has drifted into the moat .The familiar moral drama of detention centres for refugees has brought us this unexpected scene of Buddhist life. Both tragic and festive scenes are brought together in a humble aesthetic of found materials.

As a visual artist, Nick Mangan has a more austere story to tell. The Melbourne-based sculptor has been engaged in a particularly rhizomic aesthetic, imitating the work of termites in a theatre of speculative exoticism. His Gertrude show Colony in 2005 featured a Danish table top used as an atavistic altar. His work is a kind of reverse primitivism familiar elsewhere around the South, such as the South African sculptor Brett Murray and the Colombian artist Nadín Ospina. Mangan recovers primitivism from its colonial gaze and re-directs it back on the viewer.

Mangan’s more recent work has been inspired by found objects that match his aesthetic. The crude pinnacles outside Nauru House in Melbourne stand as a Neolithic exception to the polished granite surfaces of the city. Mangan was inspired to travel to their source.

Nauru is one of the most extreme examples of the resource curse. ‘Thanks’ to its phosphate deposits, Nauru once boasted the highest per capita income in the world. Having squandered its wealth, the nation now seems a litany of failures. It has the highest level of diabetes, the highest road mortality (despite having only one intersection), and unsustainable debt. Mangan has mined this tragic story for a series of works that first featured in the Adelaide Biennial. Notes from a Cretaceous World includes a series of coffee tables made from slabs of coral limestone that remained after the strip-mining in Nauru. Their source was the pinnacles that once adorned Nauru House in Melbourne. These tables realise a dream of the past President of Nauru, Bernard Dowiyogo. It is unreliably reported that , as he lay dying of diabetes in the USA, before signing over the use of his land, Dowiyogo suggested that the nation’s fortunes might be stored by developing a furniture industry making table tops from coral rock.

Mangan’s work has none of the unexpected delights of William’s dioramas, but they do share a parallel logic. While Williams is recovering the plastic detritus of consumerism, Mangan is dealing in an older sedimentation of marine guano. Mangan too uses the complicity that connects Australia with Nauru to conjure a story closer to home. The ‘resource curse’ is a presage of Australia’s fate, living high on the profits of mining without adequately planning for its future.

Their work can be seen as part of a broader southern aesthetic. As an alternative to the ‘big pond’, Perera invokes the concept of ‘tidalectics’, which originated in the writing of Caribbean poet Edward Kamau Brathwaite. Tidalectics reflects an island aesthetics of iterative rhythms. For Perera, tidalectics is a counterpoint to the exclusive binary of land and water that typifies the colonial imagination. As Australia has pushed a tide of refugees back to places like Christmas Island and Nauru, Williams and Mangan have shown how it is possible to draw back new elements into Australia, both critical and enlivening.

There are moves afoot currently to engage more creatively with the region. There is clearly more to learn than the tourist spectacle of grass skirts and kava. The University of the South Pacific has been producing challenging scholarship of relevance to Australia, particularly in Indigenous studies. A good source for this is the Fijian education theorist Unaisi Nabobo-Baba, who has been publishing on the subject of knowledge practices in Fiji. She has proposed a Fijian Vanua Framework for Research (FVRF). As she writes, ‘Knowledge is seen as a gift by Fijians; hence within the frame of Vanua research the gift is sought for and derived accordingly.’ She also proposes a ‘cultural taxonomy of silence’ involving fifteen different expressions of silence in Fijian culture. Along with others, what is emerging is an epistemology that strays from enlightenment assumptions and is as much about sustaining boundaries of ignorance as it is about spreading knowledge. The Institute of Postcolonial Studies has embarked on a series Southern Perspectives that aims to explore such vectors of south-south that are emerging in Australian research and thinking.

And in Suva last November, the Pacific Craft Network was established as an organisation to promote craft practice within the context of the World Craft Council. Australia happens to share this with Fiji as members of the Pacific sub-region. As late as 1999, Australia was once able to host a regional meeting in Suva on this platform. The opportunity exists now to recover that relationship.

Australia was originally conceived as a sewer for the English class system. Pacific is increasingly a drain for the world’s crap. But this contains the magical potential of reversal, transforming rubbish into beauty. The moat may end up being what connect us, not what keeps us apart.

  • John Connell ‘Nauru: The first failed Pacific State?’ The Round Table (2006) 95: 383, pp. 47-63
  • Unaisi Nabobo-Baba ‘Decolonising Framings in Pacific Research: Indigenous Fijian Vanua Research Framework’ AlterNative (2008) 4: 2, pp. 140-154
  • Unaisi Nabobo-Baba Knowing and Learning: An indigenous Fijian approach Suva: IPS Publications, 2006

[i] Oakeshott goes on to say, “The very fact that you have to get in a boat to get to Australia means we have much less of an issue than most other countries in the world.” (5/7/2010 Port Macquarie News

[ii] Suvendrini Perera Australia and the Insular Imagination: Beaches, Borders, Boats, And Bodies New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009, p.51

Originally published in Artlink  vol 30 no 4, 2010