Art practices have always been expressions of law and can continue to shape justice, including through forms like the graphic novel.
ANU College of Law
Law isn’t just a series of rules written in statute books and legal judgments, but the codes upon which we live our lives in relationship with one another. Giving shape to them in forms other than text — through visual representation, sound, movement — opens up new possibilities for justice.
The law and the arts have always been intertwined. This is more visible in non-Western conceptions of law because knowledge has often been interdisciplinary and representations of law that are not text-based continue to be paramount.
Aboriginal art, for example, has always carried law within its visual representations, but also played an important role in shaping Australian law. Ngurrara canvas II, a huge eight-by-10-metre work, was painted by the banks of Lake Pirnini in 1997 by Traditional Owners in the north of Western Australia. The artwork was part of their native title claim and an extraordinary bridge between cultures as the 40 claimants found a way to represent their connection to Country through the visual medium.
Other examples exist throughout non-Western cultures. The Adhan, the call to prayer heard across the Islamic world, is a sonic expression of law, time and space — a call to attend a ritual that connects people with the Divine. The haka, an important Māori ceremonial dance, can be understood as an expression of law and a summons to open relations when a new encounter occurs. These practices demonstrate that it is limiting to consider law as something only expressed through text.
Indeed, even in the West we know this because of the importance of legal hearings as representations of justice. The most essential part of a hearing is the giving of oral evidence.
The limitations of textual representations of law are what drove my colleague at the ANU College of Law Dr Anne Macduff and me to the graphic novel form, and led ultimately to our collaboration creating Once upon a time in Australia: conversations about how our MeToo movement exposed the troubles with truth in law.
The genesis of our project was three events in close succession in 2020 and 2021, which highlighted gender-based violence within the nation’s legal institutions: the sexual harassment of staff by a High Court judge, the alleged rape of a staffer inside Parliament House, and a historical rape allegation against the nation’s Attorney- General.
These events sparked a conversation about the connection between truth and law. We were both alarmed by the fact that victims of gender-based violence often have a terrible experience in the criminal justice system.
It seemed like legal rules of procedural fairness — such as being innocent until you are proven guilty — worked in favour of the powerful, despite the rules claiming to exist to protect the vulnerable. I couldn’t separate this from the foundational lies of the Australian legal system itself. In particular, I was struck by the question of how we could expect the law to determine truth when it had lied for 200 years by suggesting Australia was unoccupied
It occurred to us that the ideas we were exploring would be enriched by visual representation, which is why we were drawn to the graphic novel.
Graphic novels are a type of literature that blends narrative and visual art in a story form, and have undergone a global revival in the past decade. Recently, they’ve also become a tool in Australia to explore questions of justice.
Extracts from Still alive: notes from Australia’s immigration detention system. Images: Safdar Ahmed/Twelve Panels Press.
In 2022, Safdar Ahmed published Still alive: notes from Australia’s immigration detention system. Ahmed started visiting Villawood detention centre in 2011, taking drawing equipment with him and powerfully documenting stories of people detained. The novel critiques the Australian Government’s moves to limit its obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention and movingly overlays this against the trauma asylum seekers experience in detention.
To create our work, we approached ANU law student Kirsten Hoffman, who started with us as an illustrator but also became the third writer of our novel. Concepts explored in the work expanded through dialogue between us as writers, and the aesthetic form gave life and resonance to our ideas.
Our novel captures a conversation between Macduff and I in a series of letters we wrote to each other. It tries to make sense of events before and after the March4Justice in 2021, which highlighted gender-based violence within the nation’s legal institutions.
Extracts from Once upon a time in Australia. Images: Kirsten Hoffman
In our letters we explore problems around how the law becomes the main institution to offer us truth in society and the injustices that follow.
When we approached Hoffman, we soon realised she should become the protagonist of the novel and its narrator. Hoffman speaks directly to the reader about the conversation Macduff and I are having. Hoffman’s voice brings depth, humour and vulnerability as she shares personal encounters with law and injustice.
Despite the three of us being within the law as legal practitioner, legal academic and law student, in the book we explore how we each feel like outsiders to the law —in part because of our experiences of gender and race, but also because of how rigid the law can be.
I write about how I am both an oppressed person and an oppressor. I am a Muslim, Afghan-Iranian-Australian, cisgendered male, who lives on stolen land.
In this instance, our shared status as outsiders was empowering, motivating us to break convention from the textual representation of law.
Our editorial meetings mostly happened online during COVID lockdowns. We started to share bits and pieces of our lives for Hoffman to shape her aesthetic style in the novel.
The last addition was a glossary of legal terms in plain language to break with less accessible conventions of referencing.
When published later this year, our graphic novel is intended as a resource for lawyers, legal researchers, law students and teachers. We hope it opens up conversations about the tensions between law and truth and supports us to imagine other possibilities for justice.
Once upon a time in Australia: conversations about how our MeToo movement exposed the troubles of truth in law is under contract with Counterpress and will be launched at ANU later this year.
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