September 2019

The Nation Reviewed

On the beaches

By Drew Rooke
Luke Cornish’s Border Force mural at Bondi Beach comes under attack

On a sunny July day, less than 24 hours after a two-year-old Australian-born Tamil girl held for 16 months at a Melbourne immigration detention centre had four teeth removed after they rotted from malnutrition, Sydney artist Luke Cornish painted a mural on the Bondi Beach Sea Wall.

The newest addition to the esplanade’s famous street art gallery depicted 24 helmeted and heavily armed officers standing in line looking out across the ocean. Their left chest pockets were stamped with “AUSTRALIAN BORDER FORCE” in bright yellow. Each carried an assault rifle, index finger on the trigger. Above them was written: “NOT … WELCOME TO BONDI”.

Painted to coincide with Cornish’s solo exhibition at the nearby Bondi Pavilion Gallery, which featured artworks inspired by three separate trips to war-torn Syria in 2016 and 2017, the mural’s 24 Australian Border Force officers were representative of the 24 people who have suicided in Australian offshore and onshore immigration detention centres since 2010. Four days after Cornish painted it, another refugee on Manus Island attempted to hang himself.

“I was really just trying to shock people out of their comfortable lives with the reality of what’s actually going on in Australia,” the Archibald-nominated stencil artist, also known as E.L.K., tells me in his Marrickville studio. “The last thing that wall needs is another set of butterfly wings or a rainbow with unicorns. That’s just distracting from what is happening right now.”

When I visited, the mural didn’t seem to trigger much of a reaction among those walking or running along the esplanade. Most passed without even noticing it while some stopped to take a quick photo or a closer look. A boy posed in front of it for his father, looking macho with his arms folded and chin raised high, while another young man inferred its meaning immediately: “It’s about refugees.”

But there was a backlash from some in the local community, including Waverley councillor Leon Goltsman, who on Facebook described the mural as “politically motivated offensive propaganda” and on ABC Radio Sydney conflated it with painting a swastika on the wall. An online petition calling for the removal of the mural said, “This inappropriate depiction of violence on unsuspecting visitors, young children and overseas guests sends a frightening message and is damaging the Bondi Brand.”

Cornish knew there would be some reaction to the mural, but he wasn’t expecting to receive hate mail calling him a “terrorist sympathiser”. Nor did he expect the controversy to blow up so much that international media outlets like the BBC would give it airtime. He jokes that he will have to thank councillor Goltsman one day “for making me famous”.

If anything, Cornish believes that another mural he painted on the same wall two years ago about the ongoing war in Syria was “far more confronting” and deserving of controversy. As he describes it, it was “an anamorphic depiction of a capitalist pig sitting on a chair with his finger on the red button, and his dog-headed wife who was wearing a shawl made from the skins of dead Syrian children”.

“But no one said anything about that,” he says, shrugging.

Eleven days after the “Not … Welcome to Bondi” mural was painted, Goltsman presented an urgent motion at a Waverley Council meeting to have it immediately removed. Those arriving for the meeting were met by a handful of Goltsman’s supporters holding placards: “DON’T POLITICISE BONDI BEACH”.

The ensuing debate heard from councillors and members of the public who wanted to see the mural removed. They described it as “violent and intimidating”, “unduly frightening” and “distressing” for children, and a “direct vilification” of the Australian Border Force and Australian Defence Force.

Another councillor, Elaine Keenan, called on the council to reject Goltsman’s motion, reminding the room of a much bigger issue than whether the mural was art, and whether or not it should be removed. “I think we’ve forgotten one thing,” she said. “What is this mural actually representing? This mural represents the impact of indefinite detention.”

After nearly two hours of heated and hyperbolic debate, Goltsman’s motion was defeated five to four. For Cornish this was “a little victory” and “should have been the end of it”.

Hours later, in the dark of night, a vandal destroyed the mural, covering it in white paint. Speaking on ABC Radio Sydney, Goltsman didn’t condone the vandalism but said it “confirms how many locals … are outraged. It also shows that the mayor has failed the community. He failed to listen to them.”

Cornish was “gutted” but “not surprised”.

The following day, Bondi Beach looked like a postcard. A light offshore breeze whipped up a fine spray from the glassy combers rolling in, and tourists and locals soaked up the warm winter sun on the golden sand.

And on Manus Island, a refugee was rushed to hospital after setting himself on fire.

Drew Rooke

Drew Rooke is a journalist and the author of One Last Spin: The Power and Peril of the Pokies.

September 2019 edition cover

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