Invisible Icarus and asylum seekers


'Icarus and Asylum Seekers' by Chris Johnston. A reimagining of 'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus' by Bruegel, featuring Tony Abbott as the ignorant ploughman, Julia Gillard as the sea captain sailing her ship swiftly away, and a sinking asylum seeker boat in place of Icarus plunging into the water.Most of us organise our lives according to priorities. We get caught up in routines. The degree to which these impinge on our ability to respond to what is occurring outside our immediate areas of concern is a vexed question. Brueghel, in his mid-16th century painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, examined this.

The dominant figure in Brueghel's landscape is a ploughman on the side of a cliff. With his back to the sea, he negotiates the wooden plough drawn by his horse. If he heard Icarus falling from the heavens into the sea it didn't interrupt his routine. The crew of a ship close enough to rescue the drowning boy instead takes advantage of a favourable breeze and sails away. The shepherd daydreams, the angler continues fishing. To all intents and purposes Icarus is invisible to those in his immediate vicinity.

Since the 1990s consecutive Australian Federal Governments have had a penchant to render asylum seekers invisible to the general public. Our political leaders, working on the assumption that out of sight will mean out of mind, have prevented the media from having access to camps on the mainland or on Manus Island and Nauru. Kevin Rudd brought this to new lows with his 'PNG Solution', a policy which has now been adopted by Tony Abbott.

It's difficult to relate to stories of personal human suffering while we accept or embrace policies which deliberately exclude us from witnessing or hearing about them. While asylum seekers remain an anonymous group, rather than individual men, women and children with names and life stories, they and their sufferings remain invisible.

For a moment in mid-2013 the possibility of asylum seekers becoming visible seemed a reality. On 17 JulyChristmas Island Administrator, Joh Stanhope, called for the name of a baby boy, who drowned when an asylum seeker boat capsized, to be made public by the Australian Government. This was never done, and his body, along with the bodies of others from the same boat, remained nameless in the morgue. Were his parents among the drowned? Or were they rescued and left to grieve?

When we know people's names, backgrounds, history, when we see them and hear them, we can relate to them as individuals. We can like or dislike them, agree or disagree, sympathise with or criticise them, but we can no longer treat them as part of an anonymous mass that can be shifted here or there according to political expediency.

Ironically the recent limit imposed by the Abbott Government on the reporting of the number of boats and asylum seekers who arrive on Christmas Island, and the number of people who drown on the way there, has misfired.

In the vacuum created, an ABC journalist interviewed a would-be asylum seeker who survived the most recent boat disaster and we saw him and his fellow survivors on our TV screens. Newspaper reports included an interview with a woman whose husband and children, with the exception of one 11-year-old son, drowned. We saw their faces, heard their voices, and we want to know more about them, what will happen to them now, along with the whys and wherefores of this disaster.

Any further news blackouts may also be stymied by the residents of Christmas Island who have vowed to tell the media about boat arrivals. This is in keeping with the humanitarian approach by the island's residents, who do see the asylum seekers up close. On 15 December 2010 they threw life jackets from the cliff top to those flung into the sea when their boat was wrecked on rocks at Flying Fish Cove, and were dismayed when their rescue attempts could not prevent 48 people drowning. These residents are the antithesis of the figures in Brueghel's painting.

A majority of Australians still support government policies on asylum seekers. Most of them are concerned about deaths at sea or issues of border security. That other concerns may be involved was illustrated when newly elected Liberal politician, Fiona Scott, said in a pre-election interview that she was in favour of stopping the boats because asylum seekers caused traffic jams on the M4 in her electorate.

The bizarre policies to 'stop the boats' include Abbott's pre-election commitments to turn back boats, to buy unseaworthy boats from fishermen and to pay individual Indonesians to report on people smugglers. It is with some relief that we now see these proposals 'outed', in the recent visit by our Prime Minister to Indonesia, as no more than pre-election rhetoric for a domestic audience. Abbott had his priorities pre-election and he had other priorities in his discussions with the President of Indonesia.

What remains to be seen is to what extent the Government's new attempts to render asylum seekers 'invisible' with news blackouts, will succeed or fail when there are competing moves to make their predicament visible in an age of access to the media that Brueghel could not have foreseen.

Maureen O'Brien headshotMaureen O'Brien did research and writing for the Penguin reference book, Chronicle of Australia. Recently she has had articles published in The Swag, the quarterly magazine of the National Council of Priests of Australia.

Original artwork by Chris Johnston

Topic tags: Maureen O'Brien, asylum seekers, Kevin Rudd, Tony Abbott, Brueghel



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Existing comments

Maureen, you are an amazing woman who truly understands the human condition and is always willing to give everyone a fair go. More Australians should be like you. Love Libby
libby o'brien | 04 October 2013

The tragedy of these asylum seekers is like the body count in war...As you say, out of sight! out of mind, faceless victims of an uncaring world, busy in their own activities and agendas, weary of compassion. And our Oz governments join this cold brigade. I don't know the answer. And it seems that this situation will continue. A well written piece, with an interesting way into the problem, Maureen..
BARBARA | 05 October 2013

This is a profound piece of writing. Placing the real lives of asylum seekers and we 'onlookers' in the context of Icarus is a powerful and fresh way of engaging with this human dilemma which itself demands of us both a creative and well analysed response. Thanks Maureen.
Kim Baird | 07 October 2013

Italy holds a day of mourning for drowned asylum seekers and our government wants a information "blackout" Shame
Arianne | 07 October 2013

Well done
Therese Power | 07 October 2013

Splendidly expressed. If only Tony and George could read it.
Roger | 07 October 2013

Thank you Maureen for a well reasoned and compassionate response to a shameful approach by successive governments. What can we do, now such vulnerable people are effectively hidden from view? What is going on in those offshore camps? Who is actually accountable for Australia's treatment of frightened and powerless people who tried so desperately to seek asylum and safety? What has become of our collective conscience? These are sad, dark times, for we have nothing as a nation to be proud of. But our shame must not silence us. Organisations such as the Asylum Seekers Resource Centre and Rural Australians for Refugees can direct efforts to help those in need on the mainland, and then inspire change in government policies. Above all, we must not just turn a blind eye and pretend we do not know. Because we do. Future generations will judge us for our actions - let's give them something to be proud of.
Ali | 07 October 2013

The cartoonist’s version of the Brueghel gives predetermined readings based on Maureen O’Brien’s article. Maureen’s own very valuable reading of the painting is consonant with W.H. Auden’s interpretation in his famous poem ‘Musee des Beaux Arts’, to which her words may be indebted. However, if we ignore the political cartoon and look at the Brueghel again there are other valid ways of reading the painting. Icarus falls into the sea because of his arrogance, his belief he could fly close to the sun with wings held together with wax. The ploughman, shepherd and angler are busy about real life, in particular providing food for others. Viewed in this way it is practical Christianity being extolled, by contrast with the folly of Icarus. Brueghel has taken the figures from Ovid and turned them into people busy looking after others, not just acting in their own self interest. It is a place where displacement and dispossession seem unlikely to happen. Yet these figures, so solidly at home in their own land, are the very ones who may be forced by mere circumstance onto that ship and sent off somewhere unknown never to return. Even those who seem most secure may have no choice but to flee their country due to the folly of some poser like Icarus.
SECOND VIEWING | 07 October 2013

I have a problem with so much writing about asylum seekers. As Maureen O'B argues visibility is a major problem. But despite much of the well intentioned and clever writing Oz hard hearts remain adamant in a large proportion of the community. So the government can say they are following the "opinion of the masses". The masses don't read and listen to commercial radio and TV. Governments will only act if they feel uncomfortable.It seems we have to adopt ways of getting attention like the Vietnam Moratoriums or planting cutouts of people who perished on Parliament lawns to make the vulnerable visible.
Michael D. Breen | 07 October 2013

Yes Second Viewing, I am indebted to Auden's poem which documented his reaction when he saw Brueghel's painting in Europe in 1938 - a time when many ignored the human suffering taking place around them. Both the painting and the poem resonated with my thoughts on the way Australia currently treats asylum seekers.
Maureen O'Brien | 07 October 2013

It is wonderful to read such a well expressed article. Thank you, Maureen. The media should be required to announce the names of those who die in their struggle to get here, out of respect for them as fellow human beings and to acknowledge the tragedy of their passing. Australians need to know. Names not numbers please. .
Anne Kostaras | 07 October 2013

Good article. Australia's stance is even more morally reprehensible when viewd in contrast to Lampedusa which has a much more compassionate response to refugees.
John Collard | 11 October 2013

How inevitable that even the tragic young hero of the metaphor is demonised! At worst Icarus might be regarded as careless in his youthfulness, Second Viewing, not arrogant in “his belief he could fly close to the sun with wings held together with wax”. I will assume that you know that another earlier original exists that includes the shocked and horrified Daedalus at whom the shepherd is staring in wonder. Daedalus survives of course… (As for Maureen’s “indebtedness” to Auden – would that Europe had paid attention to him!)

But it’s your comments regarding the “practical Christianity being extolled” that are hard to take. It seems to me that there is very little that is “practical” about Christianity, intellectually or morally and that it’s generally argued that the story of The Good Samaritan illustrates genuine Christian “practicality”. In fact, it is my understanding that Christians are required not to be misled by concepts of “practicality”, “minding one’s own business” or “following orders”. I suspect that you’re confusing “practicality” with pragmatism, Second Viewing, and you’re certainly confusing the very basic human need to provide for oneself and one’s family with Christianity – practical or otherwise.

Lovely work, Maureen.
Gaye Swinn | 18 October 2013


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