Criminologist and artist Carolyn McKay highlights injustice through innovative exhibition

6 December 2018
justiceINjustice brings together artists and lawyers in award-winning exhibition
Artists exploring criminal injustices is not a new genre, but lawyers taking the lead in collaborating with artists in an exhibition that exposes these injustices definitely is.
Richard Lewer artwork

Richard Lewer, Never shall be forgotten – a mother’s story, 2017


The University of Sydney Law School’s Dr Carolyn McKay curated the justiceINjustice exhibition which brought together three lawyers and seven artists to present instances where the criminal justice system has, apparently, failed. Through research, discussions and meetings with impacted families, the artists presented impactful works that explore high-profile cases of wrongful conviction, wrongful detention, excessive use of police force, failures to bring perpetrators to account, and deaths in custody.

One of the works, Richard Lewer’s Never shall be forgotten – a mother’s story, responds to the deaths of young Aboriginal men in custody.

In 1983 in Roebourne, Western Australia, 16-year-old John Pat was gravely injured during a fight with off-duty police officers and he later died of his injuries in the police lock-up. The following year, the police officers were acquitted of his manslaughter by an all-white jury.

With Lewer as narrator and guide, his animation relates the story from the perspective of John Pat’s mother, Mavis. John Pat’s death, as a juvenile in police custody, was a catalyst for the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (1987–91) that investigated the deaths of 99 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Arising from the royal commission were recommendations targeted at the practices of correctional and law enforcement authorities.

Corinne Brittain’s installation, STRANDED (I have done nothing wrong)

Corinne Brittain, STRANDED (I have done nothing wrong), 2018

The theme of systemic failure in detention and the dereliction of the duty of care continued with Corinne Brittain’s installation, STRANDED (I have done nothing wrong) critiquing the treatment of Cornelia Rau.

Ms Rau, a permanent Australian resident, was wrongfully detained in a Queensland prison and then at the notorious Baxter Detention Centre in South Australia while suffering from mental health issues. Throughout her wrongful detention, including solitary confinement, it was reported that her recurring mantra was “I have done nothing wrong”.

Brittain’s work of rusted wire mesh and red cotton twill, developed in consultation with the Rau family, reflects on the frustrating ‘red tape’ and ‘buck-passing’ that characterised this disastrous incident. Her work also invites us to pause and consider our ongoing treatment of those in our immigration detention facilities.

The exhibition also drew attention to investigative failure in the cases of three young women from Newcastle who disappeared in the 1970s and whose cases were never treated as suspected homicide or investigated adequately by police at the time.

justiceINjustice challenged all the artists on a number of levels, in terms of the curatorial directive to create work outside their usual practice, in the confronting nature of each case, and in the need to be sensitive and respectful to those involved in great trauma.

“Several of the artists reported initially feeling extremely daunted by the task of sifting through and interpreting legal materials and arcane text, and in holding discussions with grieving family members,” explains curator and criminologist Dr Carolyn McKay.

“As one artist stepped into the unfamiliar territory of coronial inquests, police integrity investigations and criminal procedure, he described the project as one of the most engaging and rewarding and simultaneously, the most difficult.” None of the commissioned artists had previously worked in collaboration with lawyers. While the lawyers came to the project from a discursive world, the artists focused on materiality, sensoriality and intuition to produce work that is both creative and critically engaged.

The first-hand experiences, illuminating back stories and insights of the three lawyers, sparked creative concepts and responses. The resulting works reveal alternate perspectives of these public interest cases, as well as tangible and immersive means for understanding injustice.

justiceINjustice was curated by artist and criminologist Carolyn McKay from Sydney Law School and produced by Jessi England in collaboration with The Lock‑Up. Featured artists included Corinne Brittain, Rob Cleworth, Blak Douglas, John A Douglas, Leah Emery, Lezlie Tilley and Richard Lewer. Collaborating lawyers include Ray Watterson, Robert Cavanagh, and Karen Wells.

The justiceINjustice exhibition was recently awarded the Museums & Galleries of NSW IMAGinE Exhibition Projects Award for galleries with two or less, paid staff members.


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