Write what should not be forgotten

“Maybe the most important reason for writing is to prevent the erosion of time, so that memories will not be blown away by the wind. Write to register history and name each thing. Write what should not be forgotten.” Isabel Allende [1]

The large-scale projection of Black Lives Matter on the Rainbow Sea Containers in Fremantle last week included the names of some of the 437 Indigenous people who have died in custody since the final report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody was released in 1991. It was a demonstration of solidarity with those protesting systemic discrimination against Aboriginal people, in Australia and around the world.

The event, which was opened by Curtin academic Dr Hannah McGlade, demonstrated the power of the creative arts to amplify moments of social change. It was organised by a collective of local residents, including members of Curtin School of Media, Creative Arts and Social Inquiry, the Museum of Freedom and Tolerance and projection artist Steve Alyian. It also had the support of Fremantle City Council.

Professor Suvendrini Perera, who orchestrated the artwork, explained how the site of the projection, “between the river and the sea, overlooking the port of Fremantle with Wadjemup (the largest deaths in custody site in Australia) in the distance, is one that carries layers of historical significance.”

“Directly above is Cantonment Hill, the seat of military occupation, reminding us of the colonial monuments being pulled down across the world. The graphics and images projected on the Rainbow Sea Container will hopefully bring these sites and their effaced layers of violence into focus anew.”

This is no unique landscape. Racism is deeply embedded in the visual systems of settler colonial societies, hidden in plain sight. Around the world, identities of nation states are deliberately formed through civic architecture, government buildings and courts of law, statues, street signs, suburb names, flags, anthems, maps, museums and libraries and galleries.

The iconography of the nation state translates directly into popular culture and is more insidiously upheld by our legal, organisational and policy systems. It is designed to tell us who we are, and who we are not. Who will benefit from the system and who will not.

The Covid-19 pandemic has stripped civil society of some of this morally flimsy veneer and exposed the deep inequity of these systems of power. The year 2020 is forcing us to see. Fissures are suddenly opening in the architecture of the nation state and enabling a reclamation of public space to accommodate the speaking back of multiple voices and multiple histories. A wildly successful example of this reclamation is the barrier fencing constructed around the White House to keep protestors out, being transformed into an instant art gallery.

Art movements have always accompanied civil uprisings, catalysing the human desire for change into aesthetic forms that imagine the world in new ways. Art gives us the tools and the language to make visible the histories of inequality, invasion, slavery and genocide that run parallel to and are a consequence of the western imperialist project. We can write to name each thing.

Every one of the names projected on the Sea Containers made a mark upon the world that cannot be effaced. The ephemerality of the projection pays tribute to absent narratives all around us, faces and names, stories and histories not carved in stone. Truth is mightier than power, and this testimony needs no statue. The medium really is the message.

In her opening words, Dr Hannah McGlade observed that “our Prime Minister has said recently there’s no slavery in Australia. I’m descended from my great grandmother Ethel Woyung McGlade (and) her brother was taken to Wadjemup; he resisted. They forced people into labour to build this country on the pastoral stations, and he’s one of the few people that escaped Wadjemup on a boat. Wadjemup is Rottnest Island, the largest mass grave in Australia, for Aboriginal people who were made slaves and resisted; they were executed and died there. We still have no proper remembrance of that history.”

“The mass incarceration and criminalisation of Aboriginal people has been ongoing since colonisation and the first building that was enacted by the colony is the Roundhouse which was established to house Aboriginal incarcerated people who were resisting slavery.”

The need to see yourself, and your history is visceral for voices that have been erased. It’s an act of deep agency. I exist, I am here. Visibility is the crucial weapon in the war for hearts and minds. We need visibility to create the conditions of empathy and compassion that humanise those around us, and prompt understanding and social change.

The video footage of George Floyd’s death in the United States has demonstrated that we all now carry the tools in our hands to make ourselves visible, amplify our voices, emerge from the shadows of the statues and the systems that still tower above us and record history anew. This is the revolt of the unseen, in Martin Luther King Jr’s words, “the language of the unheard.”

The Museum of Freedom and Tolerance’s In Visible Ink platform (www.invisibleink.ink) is designed to amplify otherwise invisible or hidden stories and histories, and to centre what has been erased. There are a multitude of storytellers guiding people to see the world through new eyes, and in ways that heal rather than hurt, that bring us together instead of tearing us apart and create opportunities to reflect and respond.

The Deathscapes Project leads in this space, documenting and giving voice and vision to the places and spaces in which Indigenous peoples and refugees die in settler colonial states, with the aim of humanising deaths in custody. The project All We Can’t See, provides a digital platform for artists to illustrate The Nauru Files, published by The Guardian newspaper in 2016. In the Killing Times, The Guardian has published a map of colonial massacre sites in Australia. In the United States, the Equal Justice Initiative publishes a daily calendar of historic events related to racial injustice. The Freedom on the Move project has created a database of advertisements posted to locate runaway slaves.

Museums can play a role in gathering together these voices in the task of better understanding, sharing, engaging with and learning from human story, to broaden what we see, to shift prevailing narratives and to spearhead the acceptance of multiple histories.

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes,” said Marcel Proust. The deep purpose of art is to help us see the world in new ways, and through new eyes. Now is the time to learn, to read, to understand. To see differently, be transformed and make change.

[1] Zinsser, William, editor. Paths of Resistance the Art and Craft of the Political Novel. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989. Pp 41–45.

Advocate of the arts, passionate about creating diverse and inclusive environments and social justice solutions, committed to fighting hate and intolerance.