The feature image is one of my sketches from a (clothed) life drawing class held last September inside a detention centre with asylum seekers. It drew together three of my main passions: drawing, activism, and people, and is a fitting depiction of where my head has been lately.
This week I had my second ever article published in The Conversation. about the drawings of children in detention. I wrote the article as a way of condensing some of my strange and sticky feelings around the repeated publication of drawings associated with the Forgotten Children Report – and the associated controversy….
However, while writing the article I was intensely aware of just how much information and reflection I had to exclude, in order to fit within the the ‘brief’ of an 800 word current affairs type discussion of the topic. I managed to include one line – that evokes Michael Taussig’s reflection on drawing as a trace – which is itself a trace of Jacques Derrida’s meditation on drawing as the space of a moment in which the artist is blind – and cannot see anything – and in fact draws, the will to see…..
Reading about drawing, and what drawing is, how drawing is, and the multiple puns of drawing, and being drawn into, and drawing from has been a large part of my life over the past five months. My life has straddled two very strange worlds of writing (a book about drawing) at home, or attending weekly visits at the refugee detention centre, where I and others, draw.
The real crux of the article, of course, came from this latter experience, and the gazillions of drawings that I have from the many children in detention, that accompany their parents who come to class, or who just wander in with someone else, or someone else’s kids, and who address me (and any white person) as “officer” and ask for paper and texta/crayon/paint/pencil or anything and draw and draw and draw….. or scribble for a bit, and then pick a fight, or start crying, or make a mess with paint.
This is not unusual for kids, however what is more unusual is the very strange matrix of guardianship and surveillance in which the children are embedded. In detention, children and parents are constantly under the surveillance of ‘officers’, and parents abandon the helicopter parenting style associated with contemporary (western) parenting. This appears to be a response to the continuous surveillance of parents and children within detention. There are fences between children and roads, so there is no risk of toddlers running into traffic, and there are guards and security cameras and people everywhere, so someone always knows where the kids are, or where the parents are. So when a child ‘plays up’, and fights, jumps, yells or spills things, it has a different and disturbing relationship to the multilayered experience of authority and surveillance than in conventional settings. Of course the Forgotten Children report discusses this at length, along with a myriad of troubling problems concerning the mental health of children who are imprisoned for lengthy periods.
Aside from the many horror stories and genuinely awful things that have happened and continue to happen to children (and adults) in detention centres, many issues in the report, and in the experience of visitors to detention centres concern the boundaries between private and public spaces. The most obvious boundary violation is between the perceived space of the family as private, and the symbolic and physical space of the detention centre as a public space of the national frontier. However, this public/private tension extends to representations of that space, and particularly to the spaces of drawing and how they are used.
I had an interesting conversation with the other visitors about the masses of drawings that we have from kids in detention. Mostly, the kids seem to want the same thing as the adults – which is the presence of someone who will sit with them quietly and calmly and draw along with them, or show them how to draw a cat, a car, a star, a house…. and most drawings are of rainbows, animals, houses, planes, trees, suns, hands, lovehearts, faces, etc., although occasionally some random one will appear, showing people drowning, or people behind bars, or crying faces. In the middle of one sheaf of scribbles on paper comprising – the kid neatly practicing “I’m a boy, I am a boy, I am a boy, I am a boy” and the mandalas and flowers drawn by his mother sitting beside him, there appeared another drawing in coloured crayon with no words, of a steam ship cruise liner sailing on the ocean, while people sank in the water crying.
And this drawing is like a punch in the guts….. and I don’t know if the child who did it was “I am a boy” before he ran around stealing his brothers crayons and wreaking havoc, or his little brother who cried saying “I cannot draw! I Cannot draw!” before making a terrible mess with some paint that took ages to clean up….Or just some kid – some faceless random kid who is now reduced to his drawing….. who maybe is a friend of “I am a boy” or maybe not….
So I decided not to use any of the drawings that I have, not even the drawings given to me by the mother of a child whose psychologist stated that they were symptoms of her PTSD from detention. Sadly I do not have the other drawings that the same child did with me, of glittery love hearts, and houses and princesses, because she wanted to keep and enjoy them, but I do have a loom band that she made for me, and the other visitors, whom she eventually learnt to address by name, rather than as “officer”.
I decided not to reproduce the drawings I have by children in detention, because the kids who are now free, and to distribute their private drawings in a public space, would be a violation of the trust embedded in a relatively private act with a vulnerable young person with very little power. As Safdar from the refugee art project states, consent with refugee artists is an ongoing process and relational process. Asylum seekers are continually negotiating their own status as legitimate citizens, or as safe visa holders, or as silent and anonymous detainees, and their capacity to provide consent alters with this, as well as with their shifting levels of trust and confidence in the visitors, officers and other professionals with whom they engage. And this is where art practice and research also rub up against each other. The ideal of the artist as autonomous, and of art as a private or sovereign act, conflicts with the contemporary understanding of research as a publicly accountable and ethically conducted procedure. Artists engaged in practice based research frequently chafe at this tension, and the insistence on ethics clearance, while many other artists sadly seem to have no awareness of this whatsoever, frequently and unquestioningly engaging in crude practices of ethnographic mining or blatant appropriation of the works of anonymous ‘collaborators’ or subjects’ of their work.
I decided to focus on the drawings gathered by the Human Rights Commission because they were already in the public sphere. The drawings were collected by commission staff, including paediatric psychologists and other health professionals, and interpreters in group discussions with their parents where informed, family consent was obtained, in a very transparent and accountable manner. Even though boat numbers and names have been removed from the reproduced images of the drawings, I still have cringey moments, imagining a child, currently in Nauru or Christmas Island, coming across their drawing in five, ten or twenty years time, and feeling retraumatised by the return to the moment when they drew the sad face, the prison bars, the tears, the person hanging themselves, or wrote the words “I want to die.”
Meanwhile back on the internet, I’ve been flabbergasted at some of the comments to my article – which either suspect the drawings were engineered by manipulative parents, or by sneaky tricky brown children ‘gaming the system’, or have been misinterpreted by gullible do-good commissioners and pinko lefty chattering class academics like me (If they only know that the same glitter that ends up on drawings by boat people comes from my own flamboyant queer party make up collection).
The horrible ‘children overboard’ scandal casts a long shadow, where the demagogical lies of a government determined to cast ‘boat people’ as alien, manipulative, evil and implacably other, are sustained in the discursive habits of people who refute the possibility of pity, or sadness or compassion, by refuting the credibility of drawings. a couple of commentators even quibbled over the accuracy of drawing bars, when children are presumably housed in chicken wire. Without the ability to correlate the presence of reinforced fencing at some of the detention centres to each particular drawing, this speculation over what are loose, gestural scribbles is as absurd as quibbling over the presumed height differences between ‘adults’ and ‘children’ in various stick drawings, or the shade of a dress, tree or hair drawn by a child. This conflates a view of drawings as ‘evidence’ with my argument that they are testimony, of legitimate feelings of distress by children. The effect is to deny the credibility of the drawers as accurate drawers, or as being able to legitimately draw their own feelings, or as even having legitimate feelings to draw. The latter is an insidious presumption that leaks from a dispute over the credibility of drawings into a dispute over the credibility of the major findings of the report.
It is here that my tripartite positionality as an activist, artist and scholar becomes entangled in a desire to scream common-sense imperatives in response, and to challenge the assumptions and understanding of drawing and agency upon which such statements are made, as well as a curiosity into how drawing is used and understood and questioned in vernacular discourse. I stammer through my own seething horror at the shamelessness of adults who call children liars. I don’t subscribe to the mawkish sentimentality that gushes over the innocence and purity of children, and to be honest I find small people quite perplexing: they are noisy, they fart continuously, they have big heads and big eyes, and really high voices and really tiny hands. However, I find something unspeakably monstrous about the thought of responding to obvious distress, anger, frustration and misery of a child with “I do not believe you.” I shudder to think how the same people who would deny the feelings of a child in detention would relate to the small people in their own lives. I think of the statistics of child sexual abuse in the general community (1 in 4 girls, 1 in 10 boys) and I start to feel quite horrible.
And at this point words fail me, and all I can do is draw, or return to drawing, and gather some paper and Zorhal or Ker, or Kari, and make more scribbles, drawing lines between languages and people, that pass through fences, and cross between glimpses and looks and tears and hugs and hands and hope.