This story is over 5 years old.

MCA Conversation Starters

This Performance Art Piece Puts Australia’s Human Rights on Trial

With an Aboriginal elder as judge and two Afghani asylum seekers as plaintiffs.

Australia's human rights record isn't exactly stellar, to put it mildly. In fact, our government policies regarding both asylum seekers and Indigenous Australians have come under heated criticism from the United Nations. Which is what inspired PYT | Fairfield's Artistic Director Karen Therese to devise the deeply affecting performance piece TRIBUNAL—where these policies are literally put on trial. In an immersive performance piece presided over by a judge played by Indigenous elder Rhonda Dixon Grovenor, the plaintiffs are two young Afghani Australians, artist and former asylum seeker Mahdi Mohammadi and actor and recent refugee Jawad Yaqoubi. After a sold-out season in 2016, the piece is returning in a new form to be performed at Sydney's MCA as part of its Conversation Starters program. "Basically it's a performance work that is interpreting what an Australian Truth and Reconciliation Tribunal would look like," Therese tells Creators. "The United Nations sees Australia as quite low in relationship to human rights globally. For example, they see South Africa as ahead of us in human rights. So I devised the concept for this show because South Africa had a Truth and Reconciliation Tribunal post-Apartheid and I thought it would be really interesting to imagine Australia having one."


The simulation of a people's court uncovers some thought-provoking truths. "What the show does really well is it parallels the story of Indigenous Australia with newly-arrived Australians," Therese explains. "With the judge, or the convenor of the tribunal, in conversation with the two refugees about their lives and their experiences." What's revealed is the parallels between how Australian government policy has historically treated Indigenous people and how it treats refugees now. "Dixon lived under the Aboriginal Protection Act in the 1950s and 60s, and now refugees have to live under a code of behaviour—which is a document they have to sign when they leave detention and come into the community—which basically is really restricting their abilities to engage in society. And a lot of people don't know that's what's happening," says Therese.

The immersive performance also provides a rare opportunity for Aboriginal Australia and refugee Australia to formally meet and greet each other. "We've invited 15 Hazara refugees, and Dixon is going to welcome them to country—Gadigal land. She believes that it's really sad for Aboriginal people that they don't get the opportunity to welcome refugees and asylum seekers to country."
The ten minute welcome performance is followed by the tribunal itself, where the two Iraqis share stories of their lives with the audience and Dixon. After this, Therese says, the audience are invited to participate in an open-flow conversation about what they've just witnessed. What follows is usually pretty emotional. TRIBUNAL is about a dream for something better and fairer—for justice itself. "We're trying to create a parallel democracy where we are creating ceremonies and rituals and events that we would like the government to adopt. It's what Australia could possibly be." MCA Conversation Starters happens this weekend 3-4 June. For your chance to win tickets to TRIBUNAL on Saturday night, email us at

Related: The NGA's Indigenous Art Triennial is Powerful and Political What's it Like to Run the MCA? Celebrating the Continued Influence of Indigenous Women in Australian Art