All We Can't See: Humanising the untold stories of Nauru
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All We Can't See: Humanising the untold stories of Nauru

Stories/243 , Issues/Refugees , Issues/Arts & Culture
Yellow House Sydney, Potts Point NSW 2011, Australia
1st Feb 2018
All We Can't See: Humanising the untold stories of Nauru
A rousing Australian-first exhibition that gives the public a glimpse of life at Australia's elusive offshore detention centre on Nauru.

All We Can’t See is a rousing Australian-first exhibition that gives the public a glimpse of life at Australia’s elusive offshore detention centre on Nauru.

Open from February 2nd-10th at Yellow House in Potts Point, the exhibition features the work of 33 award-winning Australian artists and panel discussions featuring academics, artists, journalists and human rights experts.

Talking with project founder Arielle Gamble, The QUO investigates the motivations behind this mission to use art to expose all we can’t see.

In his 2016 essay Does writing matter? Richard Flanagan speaks about The Nauru Files as some of the most important Australian writing of our time. Over 2,000 brief snippets of text with names redacted, these files document incidents of assault, sexual abuse, child abuse, self-harm and abhorrent living conditions endured by refugees and asylum seekers under the care of the Australian Government at the offshore immigration detention centre on Nauru.

Published by The Guardian in August 2016, these leaked incident reports written by staff at the detention centre offered the public’s first glimpse into the conditions inside of the facility, where successive governments have staunchly barred the media from access.

“This writing has woken me from a slumber too long,” Flannagan states in his piece. “It has panicked me. The stories are very short, what might be called in another context flash fiction. Except they are true stories.”

As passionately as he speaks about the power of writing contained in The Nauru Files, Flannagan also laments the lack of images. Where words can be dismissed, imagery and art has the power to stop people in their tracks. “Art can move beyond all language, prejudice and fear and speak to empathy and shared humanity,” says Arielle Gamble, co-creator of All We Can’t See. With a career book design, Gamble can attest to the power of imagery in getting people to engage with a story.

Pictured: Sea of Sorrow/Prayer for Guidance by Joshua Yeldham. Courtesy of All We Can't See.
Pictured: Sea of Sorrow/Prayer for Guidance by Joshua Yeldham. Courtesy of All We Can't See.

“The concept of this exhibition came from simply being a concerned citizen and wanting to do something to help expose the abuses and inhumane treatment the men, women and children who sought our protection have endured under Australia’s policies,” says Gamble. “Not everybody connects with words, and we wanted to give people another way in. We want to illustrate these stories through creative expression and use art to shed light on all we can’t see.”

Over a year in the making, the first (physical) public exhibition of All We Can’t See debuts in Sydney, featuring 33 works by award-winning Australian artists including four-time Archibald Prize finalist Abdul Abdullah and acclaimed painter Ben Quilty.

This multidisciplinary collection of artworks aims to raise awareness of the human cost of Australia’s offshore processing policies. Works forged by paint, pencil, photography and collage depict harrowing realities – women and children facing sexual assault, guards abusing power, people pushed to the point of swallowing rocks and screws, sewing their mouths shut in protest.

Pictured: Oilstone 01_Transluscent (2015) by Alex Seton. Courtesy of All We Can't See.
Pictured: Oilstone 01_Transluscent (2015) by Alex Seton. Courtesy of All We Can't See.

On the more conceptual side of the exhibition, sculptures speak to mass experiences of migration and desperation. Belinda Fox’s multidiscipline ‘6 Letters’ centres on a human heart blown from glass. Artist Alex Seton’s ‘Oilstone 01_Translucent (2015)’ depicts a marble carving of a common Yamaha motor boat engine soaking in a shallow tray of engine oil, slowly drinking in the oil and making the stone more transparent.

The exhibition not only features the work of artists speaking on behalf of asylum seekers, some of the artists can speak from personal experience. Abbas Al-Aboudi is an Iraqi asylum seeker, visual artist and plasterer by trade who has been living on Nauru for over four years. His self-portrait is a profoundly personal contribution, conveying a sense of the limbo, loneliness and difficulties of indefinite internment in Australia’s punitive offshore island camps.

Gamble hopes that the artworks will help to depoliticise the situation and create a moderate space to view it from: “The conversation around asylum seekers and refugees in offshore detention has become so polarised – there’s the hard right and there’s the hard left and there’s incredibly emotional voices on both sides. There are so many people in the middle who aren’t engaged with it and are scared to ask questions because it seems complex and overwhelming and hugely political. But I think that it's not a political issue, it’s a humanitarian one.”

“All the case files are individuals with a story… behind each redacted word is a name, is a person,” explains Gamble. “We hoped that by this time [of the exhibition] it would be a historical documentation of a bad time rather than an ongoing project.”

Pictured: 6 Letters by Belinda Fox. Courtesy of All We Can't See.
Pictured: 6 Letters by Belinda Fox. Courtesy of All We Can't See.

As the flagship of All We Can’t See’s mission, the Sydney exhibition aims to shed a spotlight on human rights injustices. The Nauru Files have been available to the public since August of 2016, however the situation for the 2,000 refugees and asylum seekers at Australia’s offshore detention centres remains largely stagnant. By giving these stories the immediacy of visual language and evoking empathy, All We Can’t See has the power to give a greater platform and understanding to the situation.

As Gamble mentions, you only need to look to the Royal Commission into the Northern Territory’s juvenile justice system to understand the power of imagery. Around the same time The Nauru Files were published, the ABC’s Four Corners aired footage of a teenage boy hooded, strapped to a restraint chair and mistreated in the Northern Territory’s Don Dale Youth Detention Centre. There was immediate international outrage, the Royal Commission was hastily announced, and systemic changes made.

Without media access on Nauru, there are no images to shock the public into paying attention. For now, art will need to bridge the gap.

“The premise of this project is that we believe that most Australians are compassionate, decent people who wouldn’t want kids to be put in situations where they’re self-harming, or where women are subject to sexual violence, or where men are pushed to their psychological extremes,” says Gamble. “We want to remove the political and just create space for the Australians who haven’t connected with these stories or this issue before and don’t know how to understand it, to get them involved and then hopefully make up their own minds.”

All We Can’t See is exhibiting at Yellow House from February 2nd-10th, 2018. 57-59 MacLeay St, Potts Point.

Free panel discussions are taking place on Saturday 3rd February and Saturday 10th February, 2.30-3.30pm. Registration via Eventbrite.

To browse the online collection and to find out how you can illustrate a file yourself, head to

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