Artist and teacher Gabby Sutherland played up the “daggy little old lady” look and 
told guards dad jokes to conceal her clandestine filming of the horrors of the Nauru detention centre.
Artist and teacher Gabby Sutherland played up the “daggy little old lady” look and told guards dad jokes to conceal her clandestine filming of the horrors of the Nauru detention centre.

Teacher risks jail to publicise horrors of Nauru

IT’S often the ones who are least expected, or in this case suspected, who pose the most danger to those who seek to suppress and conceal.

That was certainly so when Noosa woman Gabby Sutherland signed on to a teaching stint with Save The Children on Nauru.

Seeing first-hand the appalling conditions in which refugees and asylum seekers were being forced to live and the damage being done to young souls whose only crime was to be born, she found it impossible to look the other way.

Instead the mother-of-six in a ‘Brady Bunch’ family of grown children buffed her hair out and donned a red hat to accentuate the non-threatening “daggy little old lady” look concealing in the process that the spectacles she obtained, during a trip back home, were really camera spy glasses.

Playing in the dirt. Refugee children in the toxic rubble of a so-called tropical island paradise
Playing in the dirt. Refugee children in the toxic rubble of a so-called tropical island paradise

The images she took were to help drive news articles globally and ultimately to place her head to head in the Federal Court against the Australian Government.

The steel that brought her to that final reckoning was forged in the fear of discovery she carried during her 13 months on that desperate island.

“I was terrified every day,” Gabby said.

Behind the wire: children in Nauru
Behind the wire: children in Nauru

“My heart would pound as I went through the security gates where they body scanned you.

“Once a female security guard picked up my glasses case and shook it. I dropped everything I was carrying and made a kerfuffle. Other times I tell dad jokes, anything, just to get past them.”

The teacher, artist, activist and relentless campaigner for those trapped in offshore detention will hold an exhibition of her work Woven Secret at The J in Noosa supported by Women Who Dare To Tell It Like It Is from 6.30pm on March 10 followed by a Q&A session as part of International Women’s Week.

Woven Secrets will then tour nationally.

Gabby Sutherland's art piece Morphine addresses the handing out of drugs like lollies to quell the madness consuming people trapped in indefinite detention.
Gabby Sutherland's art piece Morphine addresses the handing out of drugs like lollies to quell the madness consuming people trapped in indefinite detention.

Gabby holds a Bachelor of Arts and Diploma in Secondary Education and is currently studying for her Master of International Development.

She worked on Nauru under the Save The Children contract from October 2014, through to November 2015, the longest-serving teacher on the island where many lasted only one rotation.

“Conditions were set up to make people go mad,” she said bluntly.

“It was a militarised environment. The Amnesty International report found conditions as designed to torture.

“The country is an environmental disaster from the old mine. The water is toxic, no food can be grown, everything is imported.

“Nauruans have the highest obesity rates in the world. And we chose the place to warehouse people.”

She paints a picture vastly different to the “very, very pleasant island” described by former Prime Minister Tony Abbott in 2018.

‘Nauru is no hellhole by any means,” Mr Abbott told radio broadcaster Ray Hadley. “I’ve been there. If you like living in the tropics, it’s a very, very pleasant island.”

The description jars beside Gabby’s lived experience where children walked through sewage when it rained, mould lined the inside of the tents in which people went mad struggling to survive through year after year of detention.

She said entire compounds would flood, bringing sewage with it and leaving children with weeping sores.

Coloured umbrellas attract the eye in this Gabby Sutherland piece entitled Sewerage, that draws the viewer into the reality of two children walking through raw effluent during rain.
Coloured umbrellas attract the eye in this Gabby Sutherland piece entitled Sewerage, that draws the viewer into the reality of two children walking through raw effluent during rain.

“There were a lot of doctors,” Gabby said. “Just not all at the same time.

“Anti-psychotic drugs, morphine and antidepressants were handed out like lollies.

“It was just disgusting. People would be screaming.

“Kids would witness people burning themselves to death, friends suiciding.

“They saw things children shouldn’t see.

“If Australians really knew what was going on, they wouldn’t tolerate it.

“Peter Dutton is a lying bastard. If he’s so adamant everything is great, why so much secrecy?”

Sickened by what she was seeing, during her last five months there Gabby began using spy glasses to gather footage inside the camp and hospital.

It went viral and was included in the Forgotten Children Australian Human Rights Commission Report which showed direct evidence of the serious negative effects on the mental and emotional health of children in detention.

Her images and video and that taken by a brave 16-year-old refugee, Ellie, also were used in the 2018 documentary Stop the Boats which told, through the eyes of asylum seekers and refugees, their stories of indefinite detention.

Ellie was recently featured in Marie Claire. She will present at Gabby’s exhibition via video link from LA where she is holding a sister exhibition of her own art and photos.

The ABC’s Four Corners accessed and used the images as did the Kids off Nauru campaign.

At first glance Gabby’s artwork is deliberately more seductive than confronting.

“It’s seemingly very charming,” she said.

“But when you look more deeply you find a far less charming reality.”

Works titled Plastic Bottle Creek and Sewage give the game away.

But one piece seemingly of nine broken-down cars tells the story of nine forced abortionson the island.

Artist and educator Gabby Sutherland's work Plastic Bottle Creek aims to open conversations about the reality of the toxic island on which Australia warehoused people.
Artist and educator Gabby Sutherland's work Plastic Bottle Creek aims to open conversations about the reality of the toxic island on which Australia warehoused people.

Plastic Bottle Creek depicts the trash consuming Nauru because of the constant use of imported bottled water because of the absence of any non-toxic usable source on the islands.

Gabby’s clandestine filming and photo record of the Nauruan reality came at considerable personal risk.

If caught she faced being locked up herself on the island for two years.

“The day will come when Australia will face the reality of what has been done,” she said.

“I needed to document it for the day at least 20 years from now when we accept the truth.”

Six years after she left on the last planeload of workers after Save The Children’s contract was cancelled, people remain in detention.

On her return home Gabby partnered with Doctors for Refugees to overturn the Federal Government’s gag orders.

What she faced was brought home hard when her legal team introduced themselves by saying “we are here to support you in your case against the Commonwealth”.

“We were told in no uncertain terms that if I admitted to taking spy glasses I faced two years’ jail for breaching the law,” Gabby said.

“In the end I was the last one left prepared to go ahead and I won.

“I had to prove I was a whistleblower and I don’t think they wanted to arrest a white mum of six.

Child on Nauru in detention
Child on Nauru in detention

“I was sticking up for children being abused. I was terrified. It’s disgraceful I was the only one to do it.”

Gabby and her husband, who does fly-in, fly-out electrical work, moved to the Sunshine Coast in 2008.

She describes her partner Mark as an amazing human being who had promised to buy a boat and come to her rescue if she had been arrested.

Back in Australia Gabby continued to communicate through Facebook with children trapped on Nauru guiding them away from self-harm and suicide.

She felt, she said, like the Thai teacher in the cave.

“We have arrived at an amazing time in history with all its technology where I was able to communicate and support those kids,” Gabby said.

“I’d be in my pyjamas and dressing gown at 4-5am when Mark was going to work and still be there at 5pm when he would come home, clean the house, make and bring me dinner.

“He was just fabulous. Never once did he complain even though I know he’s sometimes thinking, ‘When am I getting my wife back?’.

“It will be International Women’s Day, but I want to congratulate the men in my life … my husband and out sons … we hold each other up.”

Gabby said while a number of marriages had broken down after one of the partners had worked on Nauru, her’s had only become stronger.

So successful was the non-threatening persona Gabby presented on Nauru that she said she was once asked to room with a worker who had written a protest letter about conditions.

It was a moment that in private was to afford a rare occasion for laughter.

Tickets can be booked through www.windowomen.org or www.thej.com.au or phone J Theatre: 5329 6560



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