The exhibition at The Lock-Up, until May 20, justiceINjustice, is receiving extraordinarily wide media attention. This is not usual for galleries and artists, even Archibald Prize winners, but it vindicates the current collaboration between the selected artists, the gallery and a driving force of visionary lawyers.
It was the lawyers from the innovative Legal Centre of the University of Newcastle who first thought to bring the power of art to sensational events in which justice appeared compromised, where the police force or the court system had disregarded basic concepts of truth and human dignity in seven diverse cases, not all of them involving Indigenous victims.
The best known, now part of our national folklore, is the case of baby Azaria and the dingo. As the large painting by Blak Douglas in the exhibition makes clear, the Aboriginal trackers at Uluru immediately reconstructed the marauding dingo’s presence, ignored for years by the forensic processes of the law.
Equally visually cogent is Corinne Brittain’s impenetrable curtain of red tape surrounding the Cornelia Rau affair, a telling metaphor in this mishandled case of mistaken identity. Rob Cleworth builds up a photographic portrait of the unfortunate Roni Levi, shot one morning on Bondi Beach by a squad of policemen.
Lezlie Tilley had perhaps the most difficult assignment, since Kathleen Folbigg’s case is still under review. Using long diary entries, scrolled onto the emotionally charged leather cushioning of the padded cell in The Lock-Up, brings an individual human voice to Folbigg.
It was a particularly challenging task for Leah Emery to find visual equivalents for the unsettling disappearance of three Newcastle girls in the late 1970s, with the questions of the devastated families unanswered.
Emotion is deadpanned in Richard Lewer’s hand-drawn animation of an aboriginal boy’s needless death when in police custody, while John A Douglas treats a further story of callous treatment and brutal death on film engendering a sense of impotent terror.
This is obviously more than an art exhibition. Strong emotions are automatically built in to the very bricks of the Lock-Up itself, but are our feelings of pity and horror compromised by the number of dense wall texts and room of court records?
Were the artists so overloaded with the compromising material and its emotional challenge that they sometimes found it hard to find visual metaphor or coherent narrative? Certainly, the individual stories display and engender outrage. Each of the seven cases is a barely hinted at complex drama, undermining basic tenets of our democratic society. Art is a bi-product, a tool in a crusade for justice.
Obviously the aim of this brave exhibition is to build an awareness of crass institutional and human failure in our justice system. The lawyers who worked so closely with the artists are as much the heroes as the artists selected to interpret these tragic human stories. We applaud them and the many people involved in this outspoken and visionary project.
Sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.