The number of Indigenous deaths in custody in Australia was 147 in the last decade; the number of deaths associated with Australia’s borders, whether in offshore detention or during border enforcement operations, was nine in 2018–19. While these facts are documented in several databases, a growing online project called Deathscapes researches the lives behind these deaths and physically maps the sites of where they took place: mostly police cells, prisons, and immigration detention centers. According to Deathscapes’ website, the project focuses on “the settler states of Australia, the US and Canada, as well as the UK/EU as historical sites of origin for these settler colonial states.” Indeed, the effects of settler violence around the world are visible, from the shores of Italy and Spain to the crisis on the Southern border of the US, where children are separated from their families and kept in inhumane conditions. At least seven children have died since 2018.
Yesterday and today, last week and next. The news cycle brings stories of deaths in custody and drownings at sea; asylum seekers are kept on boats, held at bay in a limbo, stateless. Fleeing from one place but shut out of the next. These haunting images of death and despair remind us that we live in and adjacent to an unfolding humanitarian crisis. The state techniques, media practices, and political ideologies help to rationalize and keep these events invisible. How to intervene in this constant stream of information that does little to humanize those who are affected? The Deathscapes website begins this process.
One way the website does this is by using art to amplify the stories surrounding asylum seekers, as well as carceral and border deaths. Deathscapes features images of resistance and protest, paintings and drawings about the offshore detention — a decisive challenge to how these lives are documented by the state through statistics which reduce people to generic and scientific descriptions. Another strategy used is “naming the dead”; each person is identified by name, according the protocols of each family.
Professors Suvendrini Perera and Joseph Pugliese are the chief investigators of Deathscapes, an Australian Research Council–funded project that began in 2015. To support the academic research, the project team also includes human rights lawyers, journalists, and refugee advocates. Deathscapes functions as a teaching tool about the policies and actions behind each death. The site resists the 24-hour news cycle: It collates these narratives and creates a contemplative space in which to see these events together, as an ongoing catalogue of settler violence.
Included are quotes, hard data, and articles pertaining to Indigenous issues and custodial deaths, and case studies and artwork responding to deaths worldwide: at the border (the case of Anastasio Hernández Rojas who died at the hands of border police in the US); in detention (Moises Tino Lopez, a 23-year-old native of Guatemala, who died in an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facility); by boat (the Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi whose body washed up on the shore of Kos in Greece, an image that went viral); and in custody (Mr. Ward, a senior Ngaanyatjarra lore man and artist, died in the back of a prison van while being transported across the Western Desert).
The art and design elements of Deathscapes are not decorative or ad hoc illustrations to a text; their function is political. Art can gesture towards other ways of being in the world that remain outside of the controlled forms of representation presented by the state and media. According to Perera and Pugliese, the site “draws on the ways in which art has been used by disenfranchised peoples as a platform to ‘speak back’ to violent and oppressive regimes in their own languages and on their own terms, graphically marking their acts of protest, resistance and cultural resilience.” They continue, “the artworks on the site operate across a number of intersecting political levels: they offer testimony of what otherwise would remain unsaid and unrepresented; they offer graphic examples of acts of protest and resistance; they instantiate agency in contexts in which it is often so brutally denied; they amplify, through their visual languages, the key analytical and political concerns articulated in the various case studies of racialized deaths.”
Most artwork comes from the communities affected; others come from ally artists. There’s art about migration and the experience of being a refugee, like Miream Salameh’s series of paintings depicting migration and the fleeing of oppressive regimes (the artist fled Syria in 2012 and arrived in Australia in 2013). Through the eyes of the old and young — mothers, fathers, and children — we see tents, boats, exhaustion, confusion, and sometimes fear. Ben Quilty’s Life Vests (2016–17) is a series of 12 paintings that uses the life vest as a metonymic symbol for the plight of refugees at sea. Each orange vest has an individual’s name who died on their way to Australia.
What makes Deathscapes so compelling is not only its comprehensive cataloging of colonial settler violence, but the ways in which it humanizes the victims. As a counter archive that lives online, my concern is that it, too, will be cycled through or buried. However, Deathscapes also operates in tandem with protests and symposiums which respond to and engage with current events in real time. A visit to Deathscapes requires a slow study of all its contents, and once you’ve dived in, the scale of this humanitarian crisis becomes impossible to ignore.
I acknowledge the people of the Woi wurrung and Boon wurrung language groups of the eastern Kulin Nations on whose unceded lands I live and work.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Deathscapes featured articles by indigenous elders. This is incorrect. The site features articles about indigenous elders and other issues. We apologize for the error which has been amended.