Artists who boycotted the Sydney Biennale over its links to Transfield have won an important victory for refugee rights.

Transfield Services now has the contract to run detention on both Manus Island and Nauru—pocketing $1.22 billion over the next 20 months. Transfield Holdings, which sponsored the Biennale, has a 12 per cent stake in its sister company.

But the decision to withdraw their artworks by nine artists and a protest letter signed by 28 artists forced the Biennale board to sever its links with the company.

The backlash from media figures, the establishment and Liberal politicians including Malcolm Turnbull and Arts Minister George Brandis shows why it was right to take a stand. The artists’ stance was attacked for everything from putting the Biennale’s future at risk, being pointless, to having the wrong target.

Some other artists including Douglas Gordon, who gave the Biennale keynote address, argued that addressing refugee detention through their artworks would have made a stronger statement.

But the fact is the decision to boycott has generated more controversy and discussion on the issue than just about any other conceivable action. The brand damage for Transfield has been immense.

The fact that a number of artists were prepared to act, some at high personal cost after months preparing works for the Biennale, will inspire many others to act too. Olafur Olafsson withdrew his work after travelling all the way from Germany to attend the Biennale.

Boycotting companies will not end the offshore hell of Manus Island and Nauru on its own—it is the government that ultimately pays for the running of the centres and upholds the policy. We need to change public opinion and force the government to shift. But boycotts can help highlight the horrendous conditions companies like Transfield are imposing on asylum seekers, and build momentum for change.

By James Supple


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