A Christmas tree made from the life-jackets of Syrian children is shown at St Paul’s Cathedral Melbourne this festive season as a reminder of the plight of refugees the world over. Archibald-prize winning artist Ben Quilty and Mirra Whale created the 12-foot tree from hundreds of child-sized life-jackets abandoned on the beaches of Lesbos.
The Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, said: “Ben Quilty’s sculpture, Not a creature was stirring, is a powerful reflection on the human cost of war and conflict. The hi-vis Christmas tree at the entrance of our Cathedral is a reminder that Jesus and his family became refugees almost immediately after his birth. It is an invitation to us to open our hearts to help people displaced by war and conflict.”
During the height of the Syrian civil war hundreds of refugees daily undertook the journey from Turkey to the European Union by boat. Overcrowded vessels, unsafe flotation devices and insufficient coastguard provision made crossing the Eastern Aegean perilous. The pile of life-jackets left on the beaches became a symbol of a safe crossing.
Loewe grew up on the coast of South Wales and was involved in the UK lifeboat service there. “I remember what it’s like to pull people of the freezing water, often by their life-jackets,” he explained. “And so when we were approached by a private collector asking whether we would host the life-jacket Christmas tree, I immediately said yes”.
Dean Loewe said: “At the height of the Lesbos boat arrivals, one of my friends from UWC Atlantic College, Robin Jenkins, brought a UK lifeboat to Lesbos. Robin joined Greek coastguards to help save refugees from drowning. Their success is reflected in this sculpture: Ben’s tree of life-jackets is a sign what it means to be saved – literally being snatched from death to be given a new life.”
Quilty’s sculpture is displayed alongside images drawn by Syrian refugee children. Travelling to refugee camps in Northern Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan at the invitation of aid agency World Vision International, Quilty worked with primary-school aged children to give voice to their story and their hopes.
St Paul’s Cathedral has been vocal in advocating for refugees for many years, and its successful outreach programs serve countless new migrants to Melbourne. Dean Loewe said: “Ben’s exhibitions bring the conflicts of distant places close to home. I hope that our Christmas exhibition will encourage Melburnians to share with us in making refugees welcome in our city and nation. I hope that any will join us in our advocacy and concern for those who have lost their homes, and who now need to build a new life in our nation”.
Quilty’s sculpture is on display at St Paul’s until February 2019.