Voiceless Journeys

October 30, 2016

On my return from nearly 3 months of travel, one of my first tasks was to contribute to the launch of a book called Voiceless Journeys published by Ondru, a great small arts organisation committed to provoking thought and evoking change through art: http://www.ondru.org/about/us The book consists of strong black and white photos ad the words of refugees who have come to Australia. https://ondru.myshopify.com/

My address, which followed a great opening by activist Tasneem Chopra and moving words by some of the participants in the project, follows:

“Whilst I’m extremely honoured to be part of this launch tonight, I’m feeling slightly guilty about playing such an important role. Firstly, I’m someone who avoids having photos taken. Cameras are kind to my face and so I spend my life behind a camera taking pictures of other people. Secondly, I’m a pink Anglo Australian – born and bred in this country and given every opportunity to achieve a good life. The only challenge I’ve had to face is being female in a world where it’s still hard to have our skills and talents acknowledged. But nothing I’ve experienced comes close to the lives of dislocation and difficulty of the people in this book.

Evan Marginson, the Chair of the Ondru, says in his opening to the book that the organisation exists to “create art that seeks to give voice to one or many of the varied experiences of what it means to be human.” What I can offer tonight (I hope) is some reflection on how the arts – whether it’s words or images, movement or music – help us learn about each other.  The “other” might be my ancestor or yours; or someone from a different country or ethnicity or gender or sexual orientation or religion. Understanding them helps us find our common humanity, helps us connect, helps us understand each other – and that, in turn, should lead to a better world.

I’ve been travelling for the last 3 months and just got back to Melbourne yesterday. I have great memories of the wonderful people that I’ve met but I’ve also been moved and gained insights about other places and other people through arts and cultural experiences. For example:

  • In the Aapravasi Ghat museum in Port Louis I saw photos of the faces of the indentured labourers who settled Mauritius and saw the hardness of their lives etched in their skin
  • An exhibition in Paris about Oscar Wilde, showing just what we lose when we punish and imprison people who don’t fit traditional definitions of sexuality
  • I listened to old recordings of the story telling and music from the people of the Great Blaskit who used to live on this tiny windswept Atlantic island off the coast of Ireland
  • On the same day in Sardinia, I engaged with the artist who painted small tiles with images of Sardinia’s old way of life and with a jeweller who made a beautiful necklace that contains an image of day to day live for all of us, now and before – clothes hanging out to dry on a line
  • Stepping down into the Roman arcades under Coimbra’s art museum and walking in the footsteps of past generations and then stepping back into the light to see the statues of saints made by Portuguese limestone carvers 1,500 years later
  • Listening to the Fado music of Portugal and the Folk music of Ireland and the Sega music of Mauritius and the Pop music of Italy – sometimes in words I could understand and sometimes in words I couldn’t – but all invoking emotions of pleasure and connectedness.

Whether its photos or sculpture, music or stories, paintings or jewellery, art tells us about ourselves and about others.

One of my favourite arts managers John Tusa captures with grace and passion the contradictions and strengths, the paradoxes and weaknesses, of why the arts are important:

“The arts matter because they are universal…..because they deal with daily experience in a transforming way; because they question the way we look at the world; because they offer different explanations of that world; because they link us to our past and open the door to the future; because they work beyond and outside routine categories; because they take us out of ourselves; because they make order out of disorder and stir up the stagnant; because they offer a shared experience rather than an isolated one….The arts matter because they embrace, express and define the soul of a civilisation. A nation without arts would be a nation that had stopped talking to itself, stopped dreaming, and had lost interest in the past and lacked curiosity about the future.”

Philosopher Alain De Botton makes the beautiful point that “many important truths will impress themselves upon our consciousness only if they have been moulded from sensory, emotive material.” And that’s what the arts do so well – touch our senses, touch our emotions. He goes on to say that “We may, for example, need a song to alert us in a visceral way to the importance of forgiving others…just as it may be only in front of a successful portrayal of an oak tree that we are in a position to feel, as opposed dutifully to accept, the significance of the natural world.” And in the same way, looking at the beautiful photos in Voiceless Journeys, responding to the warm smiles, the demonstrative hands and the often challenging words, we learn the importance of looking deeper into what it means to be human.



By creating something of beauty such as this book; by taking such wonderful photographs; by enabling the hearing of so many disparate voices; the photographers and designers, project managers and other Ondru staff, have done us all an immense favour. And to the people who have bravely changed their lives and shared their stories – of hurt and loss, of struggle and success – I am honoured to meet you and our shared country is richer for your presence.

To end I’d like to share a poem from the Nigerian writer Niyi Osundare from another great book From the Republic of Conscience: 

I sing

Of the beauty of Athens

Without its slaves

Of a world free of kings and queens

And other remnants of an arbitrary past


Of earth

With no

Sharp north

Or deep south

Without blind curtains

Or iron walls


Of the end

Of warlords and armouries

And prisons of hate and fear


Of deserts treeing

And fruiting

And the quickening of rains


Of the sun

Radiating ignorance

And the stars informing

Nights of unknowing


I sing of a world reshaped.



Brokensha, P & Tonks, A 1986, Culture and Community: Economics and Expectations of the Arts in South Australia, Social Science Press, Sydney

De Botton, A 2009, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, Hamish Hamilton, London

Stover, CF 1984, ‘A Public Interest in Art – Its Recognition and Stewardship’, Journal of Arts Management and Law, 14 (3)

Tusa, J.2007a, Engaged with the Arts,  I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, London