Refugee's boat bobs up at Tuggeranong Arts Centre
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Refugee's boat bobs up at Tuggeranong Arts Centre

Seeking Refuge. Various artists. Tuggeranong Arts Centre. Until October 29. tuggeranongarts.com.

When Australia's treatment of refugee boat people feels heartbreaking perhaps it helps the bleeding hearts among us (this reporter is one of them) to do some therapeutic heart-making.

Barak Zelig's tiny sculpture, Large boat for a few people, a comment on plights of boat people and refugees.is on display at Tuggeranong Arts Centre's Seeking Refuge exhibition.

Barak Zelig's tiny sculpture, Large boat for a few people, a comment on plights of boat people and refugees.is on display at Tuggeranong Arts Centre's Seeking Refuge exhibition.Credit:Barak Zelig

Artist Penny Ryan's contribution to the Tuggeranong Arts Centre's Seeking Refuge exhibition is her participatory installation Open Hearts.

She prepared for the installation with a "heart-making workshop" the aim being to make 1468 terracotta hearts, one for each refugee languishing on Nauru and on Manus Island. Now visitors to Seeking Refuge are invited to unwrap one of the cloth-wrapped hearts, to place that naked heart with all the other unwrapped ones in the centre of the installation, to write a message of support on the cloth and then to fix it to the fence (representing enclosure) that is part of the installation.

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This reporter, while conscious of doing a masturbatory, feel-good, bleeding-heart thing that will not touch a single heart of ice in Australian government or opposition and that won't help refugees in the slightest, duly took part in the artist's prescribed ritual.

One of Barak Zelig's contributions to the passionate, angry and a little despairing Seeking Refuge is his tiny clay and plastic Large boat for a few people. It is so tiny that, standing on a white-painted windowsill, it looks as though it is afloat on a flat expanse of white ocean.

The little work requires quite a long, close stickybeak, the artist explained to this reporter.

Look closely at the jet-black human figures and you'll find that there are men, women and children among them. Seasickness is plainly tormenting some of them. By their dress some of them are soldiers because, Zelig is saying, in these terrible boat people refugee circumstances the distinction between fighter and civilian is often blurred.

He says that their jet blackness suggests that they are smothered in crude oil, a symbolic reference to how oil conflicts (for example in Libya and Iraq) are part of the horrors that Mediterranean region refugees are fleeing from. And another reason for the total blackness of everyone is that by making them all the same (no varieties of complexion and dress) they're given what Zelig calls a "universality". They are all alike just as all members of mankind are alike, meaning that all of us should think of them as brothers and sisters we should care about and work to help. There (desperately bobbing about on the sea in fragile boats) but for the grace of God, but for happenstance, go all of us.

Seeking Refuge (and in the space next door Stephen Harrison's entertaining, worrying and horsey Equus Homo) continues at the Tuggeranong Arts Centre until Saturday, October 29.

Ian Warden is a columnist for The Canberra Times

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