Artist Penny Ryan set to open hearts on Human Rights Day



28th November 2016

Laura La Rosa in conversation with Penny Ryan

It’s easy to ignore the intangible, and just as seamless to turn a blind eye to those suffering who aren’t visible to us. This very notion is underpinned by the Australian government’s anti-refugee regime in their continual quest to deter and detain asylum seekers in offshore detentions. “Out of sight, out of mind” is the age-old saying, yet, the global displacement crisis and subsequent response by policy makers is what keeps Sydney-based artist, Penny Ryan, and many more informed citizens, advocates and activists awake at night, increasingly horrified.

One particular evening Penny awoke wrestling with what was the emergence of an idea, “I was working on a different project for my Masters of Fine Arts earlier this year when I woke with a visceral image of a heart being stabbed and ripped apart. The following morning I felt compelled to make a clay human heart, so I did, and I kept thinking about it as an organ we all have in common - a unified essence of our humanness.”

At the time, our government was detaining around 1468 on Manus and Nauru. Despite the ever perseverance of human rights activists that number hasn’t budged much. That said, the #BringThemHere movement remains relentless in its pursuit to close the offshore camps indefinitely and bring every single person seeking asylum to a place of safety, support and dignity. “That was linked to my increasing sense of heartbreak as I read the news each day about what is happening in Europe and the cruelty of what we are doing here in relation to people desperately seeking asylum”, Penny explains.

"I woke with a visceral image of a heart being stabbed and ripped apart. The following morning I felt compelled to make a clay human heart, so I did, and I kept thinking about it as an organ we all have in common - a unified essence of our humanness."

Realising she’d need help if she were to replicate the sculpting of a ceramic human heart for every person unjustly detained, Penny began running workshops allowing others to engage kinaesthetically – an exercise that tangibly intersected art with humanity.

“Initially, I thought about asking friends to assist. I went to the Museum of Anatomy at Sydney University and drew hearts for hours and then tried to translate those drawings so that anyone could make them; a guide to making a heart in six easy steps. I decided to run workshops with people, enabling them to make the hearts, which then allowed conversations to occur organically about the issue of asylum seeker cruelty. I contacted a friend who works at STARTTS (NSW Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors) and she arranged for me to run workshops with refugees. I ran workshops with Latin Americans who came in the 1970’s and 80’s, Bosnians who came in the 1990’s and more recent arrivals from Afghanistan, Somalia, Myanmar Iraq and Syria.”

From here a beautiful initiative began to unfold.

“With the National Art School’s support, I was running two workshops every fortnight on a Saturday. In all I have facilitated forty-six 2.5 hour workshops and over 450 people have participated. I ran workshops in schools, community centres, churches, and individual’s homes. Participants have included school kids, medical students, a women’s shed, and people from all different faith-based groups (Muslims, Jews, Catholics, Uniting Church members)”, says Penny.

As the project evolved, both the concept and discourse began to shift, Penny explains, “the confined hearts were originally about those in detention, but as the workshops progressed, it became clear that our hearts are also largely confined by having these policies. When I first started the workshops I would do a brief explanation of the project and then get people to introduce themselves and say something about why they were there. Over time, I expanded a bit on how I introduced the issue, taking a little longer to go around the group and allow people to engage. Many talked about their sense of arbitrary privilege and their good fortune in being born here and having themselves, their parents, and/or their grandparents able to come to Australia. They expressed their profound sense of displacement in watching Australians take this stand and not knowing how they could change the conversation. The workshops enabled a sense of connectedness, allowing people to essentially break their own silence about the issue, and empowering them to do something more, even if it was as small as making a heart”.

“Opening Hearts” on Human Rights Day

On Saturday, December 10th, Penny will showcase an interactive event, Opening Hearts at Circular Quay, Sydney, in conjunction with Human Rights Day. In light of the event, Penny shared with us what we can expect on the day, “all 1468 hearts will be individually wrapped in white muslin and laid out in a double spiral on the lawn next to the MCA, Sydney. People will be invited to walk the spiral and unwrap a heart, before placing it back on the lawn and taking the option to write a response to the situation on the cloth before tying the message to the fencing. It will be the first time this takes place with a public audience outside of the art framework.”

“Again, the focus is on letting people sit with the notion of what we have in common with those seeking asylum. As an artist working in this socially engaged field, I want the work to impact people in different ways. Visually, the placement of 1468 hearts will take up the whole lawn, changing it from white stone objects to strange terracotta hearts, from a bare cyclone fence to one covered in white cloth. Sensually, the entering into the spiral, stooping down to pick up a heart, unwrapping it, holding it in the palm and then placing it, will provide a different way of connection to the more removed visual experience. Time becomes subjectively suspended by entering the artwork; leaving the everyday behind and cultivating a different space to let other emotions and thoughts arise. I don’t know if it will do all of this for many people or just a few, but I think that art has the capacity to immerse us in a different way of seeing - if only for a moment.”

“Opening Hearts”
December 10th (Human Rights Day)
10am – 4pm
First Fleet Park, Circular Quay, Sydney

Click here for more information about the event and initiative.


 Penny Ryan

Penny Ryan

Laura La Rosa