“The rescued refugees…” Part 1

Cameron Hayes is an artist whose works I thoroughly enjoy. They are a visual delight, laden with allusion and metaphor, and start you on a multifarious narrative journey that refuses to take a definitive end. They reveal without judging – and they reveal his sense of humanity. Read what you want in them, but be prepared to think…

Claiming space: Aspects of territoriality and identity in
Cameron Hayes’ painting “The rescued refugees…”

Part One of a paper I gave at the 9th Biennial Conference of the  ASSOCIATION FOR AUSTRALIAN STUDIES in Hamburg, Germany, October 6 – 10, 2004 – Conference Theme: Raum und Bedeutung – Making Space Meaningful

Wide open spaces, sweeping plains, pristine shores, bizarre wildlife – icons of Australia that stem from our attempts to mythologise the once-feared and threatening, to appropriate and come to terms with what was, for the early European settlers, so alienating and soul destroying. The vast expanse of this wild and wilful land has become the characterisation of our perception of ourselves. Yet behind the spirit of spatial greatness as a notion representing freedom and an egalitarian lifestyle lurks a cramped territorial sentiment symbolised by the jealously protected garden fence: We fear the foreign, we need definition and delineation, and we have a deep sense of insecurity. This confining and restrictive insecurity bears out that our sense of being “The Orphan in the Pacific”, as the Japanese imperial forces mockingly put it in 1942,[1] is alive and well. Cameron Hayes, a young Australian artist whose work has achieved recognition on an international stage, takes up this angst in his paintings. His canvases are characteristically carefully constructed spaces crowded with comments on the human condition. He exposes our deep-seated fears and neuroses in an attempt to confront us with critical images of our own self-destructive short-sightedness.

In order to illustrate how this confining configuration of space is identified and exposed by the artist, the focus in this paper will be on one particular large-scale narrative painting by Hayes, “The rescued refugees had to live off what was on the container ship, which because it was headed for Australia was full of fake Italian fashions and pet food.” Hayes’ narrative depiction includes the use of figurative symbols to represent claims to space as manifested in the form of demarcation and defence of territory as well as representing the levels of the process of relocation and appropriation. It also thematises the psychological threat to these territorial notions, particularly through allusion to the Tampa incident and the subsequent discourse this triggered in Australian society. The paper will also take up his idiosyncratic juxtaposing of written narrative texts with the pictorial “narrative”. With this mixture of modes, he exploits the different spatial potential of the two forms to create and resolve points of tension and to sardonically highlight the metaphors of territoriality.

1 Hayes’ background:

Cameron Hayes was born in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, in 1969. After his family relocated to Melbourne, he continued his schooling there and went on to do a Bachelor of Arts (Fine Arts) at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, completing this in 1992. At present[2] he lives and works on Melville Island, 100 kilometres off the coast from Darwin in the far north of Australia. He has had numerous solo, group and travelling exhibitions from as early as 1989, most notably two solo exhibitions (2001, 2004) at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts in New York, NY, and the group exhibition, Museutopia – Steps into Other Worlds (2002) at Karl Ernst Osthaus-Museum Hagen, Stadt-Hagen, Germany. Thus he is in the unusual position of being a young Australian artist whose voice has been heard overseas. His work also appeared at two Moët and Chandon Touring Exhibitions in 1994 and 1996 respectively, and, having been among the finalists for a number of art awards, he has had his work exhibited in this context as well.

Hayes’ dedication to his art could be described as a “calling”, since he already knew from childhood that he would be an artist and committed his efforts towards this end. His style is unique in view of current trends in contemporary art to fix on emotive abstraction, digital modes, or shock value alone, or to take on a marketing character focusing on effect rather than substance. Hayes wants his viewers to “read” the stories as well as to find their own in his works.[3]

The stories and the issues behind the aesthetic form the primary focus of his work and are highly complex and analytical. Once he has selected a theme, he will spend months researching particular topics from different disciplines and genres ranging from history, political and psychological textbooks through documentaries and newspapers to television series and popular culture magazines. Therefore his work is rich in substance and sub-text and imbued with cultural references. He expresses his mental projections as large-scale, narrative-based figurative art, consciously choosing this form as the most appropriate to depict the complexity of the subject with aesthetic immediacy.

Hayes’ paintings appear at first sight to be chaotic collections of cartoon-like figures engaged in bizarre activities. However, his canvases are in fact extremely well-constructed compositions. As Robert Nelson (2004), Associate Professor at Monash University and art critic for the Age newspaper, put it, he has “an instinct for pictorial construction.” The figures and the activities they are engaged in are extremely detailed and finely executed. Hayes takes up an issue in society and extrapolates the consequences of behaviour that spirals out of control, thereby giving the paintings the nature of being dystopias, a form of apocalyptic vision. It is for this reason that he has on occasion been compared to Bruegel or Bosch.[4] Hayes’ visions depict the disintegration of commonly understood definitions of social spaces and a breakdown in the sense of security concerning rules of behaviour. This is also represented in the distortion of pictorial space and restructuring of space in terms of composition. His art can be seen as a communication practice in the public space, a social dialogue, to reflect on, redefine and reoccupy our perceptions of this space.


The rescued refugees had to live off what was on the container ship, which because it was headed for Australia was full of fake Italian fashions and pet food.
By Cameron Hayes

2 Alienation, territoriality and identity

2.1 “Alienating” the viewer

“The rescued refugees…”, like the majority of Hayes’ paintings, is a large-scale work, the canvas being 168 x 226 cm. An initial viewing, then, is necessarily a removed one, creating a first impression of harmony, colour and balance. At a distance the figures seem two-dimensional, even “cute” and comical. The colours are bright, while what at first sight seem to be Christmas garlands ornament the scene along with cheerfully decorated posts. The overall effect is almost that of a billboard.

However on approaching the painting the image gains detail and the patterns resolve into scenes and objects of a disturbing and far-from-cheerful nature. The apparently simple harmony of composition reveals itself to be complexly measured pictorial construction consisting of highly individual and unsettling scenes. The view begins to gain depth and the viewer is drawn into the subtle background images with their gruesome and ghostlike contributions to the narrative. The garlands reveal themselves to be clothing, water, and spider webs, while the posts resolve into letterboxes on tall poles covered with cobwebs. Figures become individual, threatening, despairing, and fully pre-occupied with their own narrow frame of reference. The dark, ghostly images on the sides and in the lower section of the painting give it the atmosphere of a medieval altarpiece depicting purgatory.

There is a tension created through this changing perspective. The contrast between near and far highlights the notion of dislocation and anonymity, of being lost in the crowd as one of the masses. The initial distance set against the consequent and gradual process of identifying these caricatures of the individual condition evokes a sense of unexpected discovery in the viewer. Thus the viewer is compelled to recognise a reality, but not on the level of emotional engagement. The effect is one of surprise, or even of embarrassed acknowledgement and the viewer recognises there is a perverse humour and logic in the stories.

2.2 The alien “Other”

Nationhood, identity and the issue of “Other” are featured in “The rescued refugees…” Hayes takes up the problems of marginality and ambiguity in an almost satirical form and localises the scene on an undefined Australian shoreline. The shoreline defines the nation, while the presence of the refugees as the encroaching “Other” serves to threaten established notions of identity. On the one hand, identity as a process of defining and claiming one’s own space is addressed here, while on the other the problematique of transformation of identity through relocation and interaction with a new environment is highlighted. This is accompanied by the role that notions of territory play, how space is made into place, borders staked out, and claims to own space and place are perceived.

As a starting point, Hayes alludes pictorially to the incident concerning the Tampa refugees in order to project a hyperbolic vision of a possible future. This incident concerned the Norwegian vessel the MV Tampa, en route from Fremantle to Singapore on 26 August 2001. It was instructed by the Australian Coastal Surveillance to go to the aid of a small vessel in distress in international waters. 438 survivors were transferred to the Tampa from the Indonesian boat, 433 of them being asylum seekers. Captain Arne Rinnan sought to disembark the rescued people on Christmas Island in Australian territory. However, the Australian government refused him permission to land and deployed the military to prevent this. The refugees were subsequently demonised as queue-jumpers and a heated debate erupted in Australia and internationally over Australia’s treatment of these people. Indeed, subsequent discussion projected images of a “tide of boat people washing up on Australia’s shores…” (Marks, 2001). The image here is therefore not merely an allusion to a historical event, but also a symbolic embodiment of our fears as we clamour to define who we are. These fears are inflated to bizarre proportions and held up for reflection.

The container ship itself can be seen in the painting as an “island”, “offshore”, a “no-man’s land” excised from Australia, and as such represents the weakness of the asylum seekers’ claim to space in this society as well as the lack of their power to assert the validity of their identity. The people on board remain disenfranchised of their asylum-seeking rights as long as they do not have access to the mainland. Although the ship is located very close to the shore, the barrier between ship and shore is, on many levels, apparently almost insurmountable. Interestingly, though, it is being slowly eroded by economic activity and exchange between the “possessors” of the land and the “arrivals”. The concept of possession also raises the question of who belongs, i.e. who has the right to occupy or exist in this space. The refugees are eyed suspiciously, even aggressively, as unwelcome intruders, but at the same time, due to their economic activities they are gradually regaining the power to exercise their human rights and paving a way to accessing the mainland space.

One striking image that highlights this ambiguous state of transition is, of course, the containers. Containers are normally utilised for the transport of goods in large quantities. At the same time these containers are being used as “houses”. The house, by contrast, is normally a metaphor for identity, security and homecoming, but the nature of these houses is very different. They suggest lack of permanence, confinement – especially of political and human rights – and the treatment of humans as commodities. These container-houses are  notably on a ship, i.e. they have no fixed location and can be forced to move. However, despite their temporary/make-shift fashion as homes, the containers are very sturdy and their former contents offer the refugees a bargaining potential to negotiate a role in their new environment. This fact is empowering and leads to a certain re-poling of “centre” and “periphery”: “Old Australia” is clamouring for what the refugees have control of. It is, in fact, this bargaining power, and not the needs of the refugees themselves, that provides any basis for old Australia’s tolerance of their presence.

2.3 Territoriality and identity

The transition to empowerment is seen as an encroachment and a threat by the already resident Australians, represented in the lower section of the painting by elderly Australians defending their homes with garden hoses. This metaphor has powerful associations. An image normally associated with secure domesticity is inverted, and the Australians are sketched as weak and narrow-minded with outdated views. They clutch their garden hoses as poor imitations of water canons, suggesting fading potency and power, as they feebly mimic the state control of physical force. At the same time, there is a sense of these “Old Australians” feeling invigorated by the encounter, of their needing the arrivals, not only on the basis of an economic exchange, but also to justify their own sense of self. There is a need for Other in order to define Self. The enemy is fabricated to delineate the contours of identity.

These details combine to convey a sense of impending disintegration, a pervading sense of threat, which is perhaps most saliently symbolised by the recurring figures of pets, one of these being the cat. It embodies a dichotomy. On the one hand, for our modern society, it is a domestic animal that has become a beloved pet, a luxury, or even a child-ersatz. At the same time, in Australia, it has become, like many imported species, a threatening feral beast, a creature of power and environmental destruction. The domesticity is conveyed in the painting since the refugees have achieved a certain degree of security and thus can afford to keep cats as pets, in fact they even depend on the cats to find their way around the ship and have set up “cat-stops”. Yet a closer examination of the painting reveals the inherent danger they pose. There are repeated scenes depicting the cats threatening or attacking people on board, particularly pregnant women or children, who could arguably be said to represent the future of these people on these shores. Once children are born or grow up here, they have a de facto claim to the space they share with us. Thus the cat as an icon of modern domesticity evokes, at the same time, spoilt complacency, and in its jealous defence of its territory has become a threat to the development of new identity.

Detail from “The rescued refugees…” by Cameron Hayes

The counterpart to the cat and perhaps an even more overt representative of territorial behaviour is the dog. Dog scenes are also scattered throughout the painting, and the animals are depicted in various watchdog poses. Sometimes their defence of their territory is so irrational that they leap up and try to devour the Pavlovian bells, which, as the accompanying text reveals to us, have been erected in order to recondition the elderly Australians into accepting rather than rejecting the refugees. Those dogs that succeed writhe in distorted poses, their distended bellies revealing the shapes of the bells. In one scene in the upper right-hand corner of the painting, there is even a dog gripping an infant in its jaws, an image which, since the Azaria Chamberlain case[5], has become a nightmare symbol of how public hysteria can divert the proper course of law and how hasty, superficial judgements can be the source of gross injustice.

2.4 “Owning” space is “owning” self

The different expressions of territoriality in the painting symbolise different levels of security in “ownership” of space. The Old Australians demonstrate their territoriality by employing their garden hoses. The refugees express their emerging territorial claims by establishing their homes in the containers, developing trade and an infrastructure on board the ship, and setting up their “cat-stops”. The animals also display their territoriality: the dogs defend their territory or become so aggressive towards the Pavlovian bells that they devour them; the cats have become very complacent and secure and attack newborn babies or women in labour to maintain their position.

In “The rescued refugees…” there is a recurring theme of territoriality and laying claim to space, which can be seen as different stages of the same process. In all of this, however, it must be noted that there is no judgement made by Hayes as to right or wrong. All of the actors in this scene are motivated by their own needs and fears concerning their survival or success. None of them are engaged in elaborating a larger view. We, the omniscient viewers, are left to judge for ourselves.

Note: For more recent news, images and videos of Comeron Hayes’ work, go to:

Cameron Hayes is represented by Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York:

© Cate Kimberley, Catherine Schwerin and Word and Affect, 2012.

[1] On 27 May 1942, in an ADDRESS BY HIDEKI TOJO, PREMIER OF JAPAN, AT THE OPENING OF THE IMPERIAL DIET in Tokyo, Hideki Tojo refers to the Australians by this term in an attempt to demoralise them after Japanese successes in the south-western Pacific. The term later gained currency among Australian and American troops when referring to themselves and even inspired the nickname “Orphan Ann” for Iva Toguri (see http://www.worldofradio.com/dxld2137.txt ), unwilling American propaganda broadcaster for the Japanese “Zero Hour”. It was revived in 1998 by David Malouf in his Boyer Lectures on ABC Radio.

[2] At the time of publication on this website [2012], Cameron Hayes lives in Melbourne.

[3] Much of the information in this section stems from a series of personal exchanges in July 2004.

[4]  See, for example, Nelson (2004), Rieger (2003) or Maxwell (2001).

[5] On 17 August 1980, the 9-week-old Azaria Chamberlain was allegedly snatched by a dingo from her parents’ tent while they were camping at Ayer’s Rock (today known as Uluru). Sensational media coverage and public hysteria subsequently influenced the trial to such an extent that a sceptical environment was created, making the jury less inclined to accept the testimony of the Chamberlains. Alice Lynne (Lindy) Chamberlain and her husband Michael Leigh Chamberlain were convicted of murder and only acquitted many years later after the chance discovery of evidence that supported their case. See
appeal 1983: http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/cases/cth/federal_ct/unrep861.html
appeal 1984: http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/cases/cth/high_ct/153clr521.html
acquittal 1988: http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/cases/nt/NTSC/1988/64.html
High Court project: http://law.anu.edu.au/highcourt_project/Chamberlain%20Case%20rtf.rtf


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