Someone Please: Hearing The Men On Manus
Words by Issey Lazzara
Images courtesy of Freedom Calendar
It’s no secret that our constant reliance on social media has desensitized us to much of what we see and hear online. Two Melbourne-based creators set out to change that in the wake of the atrocities on Manus Island, using contemporary art to encapsulate the men’s cry for freedom.
Jess Lilley found herself in a similar predicament to many Australians following the closure of the Manus Island Refugee Centre- helpless. “It all just seems very unjust and frightening that our government was willing to treat such vulnerable people with such brutality,” Lilley commented. There was no doubt that something drastic needed to be done to improve the lives of the 600 remaining inhabitants. Lilley; an experienced creative director, reached out to Lara Chan-Baker; a producer and agent from The Jacky Winter Group, and together they created The Freedom Calendar.
The silence surrounding the constant outpouring of desperate and profound tweets from the men being held on Manus Island was deeply frustrating to Lilley and Chan-Baker. “We were blown away by the clarity and depth of information, thought and feeling the men on Manus Island were managing to communicate via Twitter.” Receiving messages filled with both hope and despair the duo gathered a range of tweets, capturing the full range of emotion enduring in the short statements. “The overwhelming plea though, was simply for freedom, hence the name of the calendar,” explained Lilley and Chan-Baker.
Determined to make their voices heard using the skills and networks they had at their disposal, Lilley and Chan-Baker harnessed their voices by responding with a series of contemporary illustrations. “We hoped the project might let the men know they weren’t shouting into the void–we were listening and wanted to help,” Lilley recounted.
We’re so used to hearing of the atrocities Asylum Seekers face, that our outrage is often short-lived. Each day we are bombarded with a constant expansion of information, news and gossip. Before we’ve had a chance to fully absorb any fresh information, there is already something new being thrown our way. “Twitter is so ephemeral, their words were being lost in a constantly rolling news feed,” Lilley explained. They needed something that would be a constant reminder each time we went to cross off a day. “We were creating real connections in the face of our own government’s hostility and cruelty towards them.” The Australian public responded positively, the calendar almost selling out completely, and managing to raise $8,000 for the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, who have provided direct support to the men detained during the crisis.
With Christmas looming ahead, launching a calendar seemed to be the best approach to reaching a wide range of like-minded people. “The Freedom Calendar was a product of a very specific moment in time–the tweets were published and the artworks were created all within the month of November 2017,” mentioned Chan-Baker.
An artistic approach was essential in rousing the viewer. “Art is a brilliant and effective communicator. It has the power to be very moving and it can be enjoyed and interpreted by anyone despite language, cultural, economic or any other barriers,” Lilley pointed out. By not relying purely on the tweets themselves, they were able to use art to cross social and cultural boundaries enabling them to humanize the tweets, making them far more than just words on a screen.
Speaking with illustrator James Gulliver Hancock (Image 4), I soon realized how much of a personal impact these words could have on an individual. James’ portrayal of his tweet is dark and obscure in comparison to many of the other illustrations shown in the calendar. It was important to James for his depiction to be as honest as possible to protect the integrity of the man’s tweet. “I do think the images created for a cause like this need to be arresting for the viewer,” he explained.
To juxtapose James’ work, Beci Orpin (Image 2) created her corresponding art piece to communicate an underlying sense of hope, however still supporting the theme of helplessness. “I used the transparency over the hands to show that even though we couldn’t hold their actual hand, we could give them a virtual hand, and give them hope, through our actions.”
The simple symbolism of a hand, was a common theme also adopted by Karan Singh (Image 3). However, he embraced a different meaning. The image shows two hands, vaguely imitating a bird with spread wings, bound together by shackles. “In this case I found that this shackle gesture could be transformed into a ‘living creature;’ the gesture aims to symbolise the ubiquitous icon for peace, a dove with an olive branch.”
Art aside, Lilley and Chan-Baker both iterated with pertinent simplicity that “positive action can have positive outcomes,” and thanks to this initiative, it certainly has. Hundreds of people have heard the men’s cry for freedom; The Freedom Calendar now hanging proudly on their walls.
Artistic interpretation is one of the most powerful tools there is. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a boy or a girl, where you’re from or what language you speak; art permeates through cultural and social boundaries better than any other form. Art can speak to our capacity for compassion, our willingness to listen, and our ability to love. Art like the Freedom Calendar is indicative and representative of our potential to act positively as a global community in touch with their humanity.