International artists including Richard Mosse and Candice Breitz have joined protests calling for the National Gallery of Victoria to drop its contract with Wilson Security, which provided services at offshore detention facilities on Manus Island and Nauru.
The artists renamed or changed their exhibiting works and activists disrupted Thursday night’s VIP preview of the Triennial, a major art and design exhibition.
Mosse, a Prix Pictet-winning artist, called for an immediate end to Wilson’s contract with NGV: “I understand that the decision to hire Wilson Security on an interim basis was not made by the museum, but by a state panel, and that during the tendering process the gallery cannot legally respond to this statement.”
But Mosse said he and his collaborators, Trevor Tweeten and Ben Frost stood “in solidarity with the Artists’ Committee, who call for the immediate termination of the Wilson contract.”
Mosse altered one of his works on refugees – a sixteen channel flatscreen video grid showing conditions inside Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos – to include a statement from Kurdish human rights activist, filmmaker and refugee Behrouz Boochani, who is detained on Manus Island.
“He has sent us a video statement by smartphone which we will install within our exhibit as a gesture to remind viewers of the museum’s ongoing and unacceptable relationship with Wilson Security,” Mosse said.
Mosse praised the Triennial’s “extraordinary curation” that showed the NGV was committed to raising awareness about the plight of refugees around the world, and said the gallery’s support was key to getting his vast film installation, Incoming, made. It documents the flight of refugees in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere.
Wilson Security has been contracted to the NGV since July, after the gallery’s former security company was dumped over a wage scandal in May. But the company has been subject to serious allegations of sexual assault and violence against refugees and asylum seekers, including children and women, in its time contracted to detention centres on Nauru and Manus Island.
In August, the NGV released a statement clarifying that Wilson Security was the gallery’s “interim security service provider”, chosen by the Victorian government security services panel. It said it was “in the process of securing a long-term security services provider, who will be selected and appointed through a public tender process as part of a revised Victorian government security services panel later this year”.
In August 2016, Guardian Australia’s investigation into the Nauru Files revealed incident reports detailing allegations of Wilson employees assaulting asylum seekers and refugees, sexually assaulting women and children, and attacking and choking children.
The files also suggested the company had been routinely downgrading incident reports of self-harm and sexual abuse made by other companies, and had failed to disclose at least 16 cases of sexual violence and child abuse during a Senate inquiry into abuses in offshore detention.
The company told the inquiry: “Wilson Security is committed to providing a security service… that supports the wellbeing of asylum seekers and minimises harm. Our work is supported by a set of robust policies, procedures and processes, which ensure that we continually reduce the number, type and severity of incidents.”
Wilson announced in 2016 it would no longer work in offshore detention at the expiration of its existing contract, which ended in October 2017. However, the company reportedly remains working on both Nauru and PNG. Wilson Security was approached for comment.
South African artist Breitz also has work in the Triennial. Her video installation features Hollywood actors Julianne Moore and Alec Baldwin giving voice to the stories of six refugees who fled oppressive conditions in their countries.
Breitz announced this week she was changing the name of the piece from Love Story to Wilson Must Go, effective until the NGV severs its contract with Wilson security. She invited other contributing artists to do the same.
“The horrific effects of indefinite mandatory detention are well-documented,” Breitz wrote in a Facebook post titled Why I’m Sabotaging My Own Work. “The allegations against Wilson Security since the commencement of their contracts on Manus Island and Nauru in 2012 are extensive and disturbing.”
Wilson Security provided a statement in response to the Guardian’s request for comment on Thursday.
“Wilson Security’s continuation of services at the Nauru Regional Processing Centre reflects our ongoing commitment to the safety and security of all residents. To assist with a seamless transition, Wilson Security will continue to provide security services as a subcontractor to Canstruct – the provider appointed by the Australian government.
“Wilson Security categorically rejects Candice Breitz’s false claims, which are not based on any evidence or fact.”
The blockade of the entrance to the NGV on Thursday is the latest in a recent string of actions taken by the Artists Committee, a collective of artists and arts workers who are protesting the NGV’s contract with the security company.
A small group of protesters with an anti-Wilson Security sign were at two of the main entrances on Thursday evening, and police were nearby. Some groups of VIP guests were ferried into an alternate entrance, but patrons who approached the blockade were handed flyers from Artists Against Abuse.
“We want to assure you that our protest is not directed at at you [patrons], the artists, or individual security staff members, but at Wilson Security, the NGV governance and, by consequence, the state government,” the flyer said. “We feel that it has come to the point where we must place pressure on the NGV via their biggest supporters – their VIPs.”
With Ben Doherty and Brigid Delaney