Low cost diplomatic bag arrives at Spanish Embassy
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Low cost diplomatic bag arrives at Spanish Embassy

It was a scene straight out of the 1950s.

A man in a hat walked into an embassy on Friday with an attache case handcuffed to his wrist, and waited patiently for an official to free him from his diplomatic duty.

Spanish Ambassador Enrique Viguera uncuffing Melbourne artist Peter Burke.

Spanish Ambassador Enrique Viguera uncuffing Melbourne artist Peter Burke.

Photo: Jamila Toderas

In fact, the man was Melbourne artist Peter Burke, the embassy was the Spanish mission in Yarralumla, and he was playing his part in a new creative project devised by the Spanish government to nourish the country's cultural soul.

The Low Cost Diplomatic Bag Project involves artists in 16 different countries, all of whom will present the nearest Spanish embassy with their own version of a diplomatic bag, having transformed it into an artwork.

Spanish Ambassador Enrique Viguera, Melbourne artist Peter Burke and Cesar Espada with the Low Cost Diplomatic Bag at the Embassy of Spain.

Spanish Ambassador Enrique Viguera, Melbourne artist Peter Burke and Cesar Espada with the Low Cost Diplomatic Bag at the Embassy of Spain.

Photo: Jamila Toderas
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All eyes were on Burke yesterday as he fumbled through the pockets of his impeccable three-piece suit to find the key to the handcuffs he was wearing when he arrived, attached to a battered attache case – a reference to the now-outdated mode of couriering diplomatic bags between countries.

Ambassador Enrique Viguera snapped open the lock, and the smaller gathering leaned in, fascinated, to see what was inside.

Burke had converted an original 1940s doctor's bag into a series of compartments, all containing tiny, exquisite paintings created by refugees living in Melbourne.

From countries including Iran, Colombia, Vietnam and Poland; with several of the 24 artists still living in Melbourne detention centres.

Burke said the artists had all responded to "the idea of being in limbo and the idea of being in transit".

"The refugee situation is a really well-publicised thing, but the voice of refugees isn't always heard, so I thought this would give those people a voice," he said.

Deputy head of mission Cesar Espada, who is in charge of cultural affairs at the embassy, said the project had come about in the wake of the severe financial crisis that recently engulfed Europe.

"Economic crisis doesn't mean necessarily cultural crisis, and actually during the economic crisis we came up with some very inventive creative projects like this one, the Low Cost Diplomatic Bag," he said.

The refugee situation is a really well-publicised thing, but the voice of refugees isn't always heard, so I thought this would give those people a voice.

Melbourne artist Peter Burke

The 16 artists chosen were "free to choose a theme or project, and they take the suitcase to the nearest embassy or consulate in their countries, and the embassies will send the suitcases to Madrid".

The "low cost" title referred to the fact that the artists would not be travelling back to Spain for the eventual exhibition, but just the artworks themselves, thus reducing the cost, in keeping with Spain's austerity measures.

The Low Cost Diplomatic Bag exhibition will begin in Madrid in May, and will travel for the next year to all 16 countries represented, probably reaching Australia in November.

Sally Pryor

Sally Pryor is a reporter at The Canberra Times.

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