Luke Cornish in front of his controversial - and since sabotaged - Bondi Beach artwork. Photo: Vanessa Lim

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By VANESSA LIM

Wednesday morning saw Luke Cornish’s contentious Bondi mural artwork defaced with graffiti by an unknown vigilante. The controversial mural was an indictment of the Australian government’s asylum seeker treatment. The artwork depicted 24 Australian Border Force guards and symbolised the 24 asylum seekers who have taken their lives since 2010.

Cornish, who is also known as ELK, wanted to make a political statement. “It’s very rare as a street artist or any kind of artist that you’re given an opportunity to say something in such a public space. Public spaces become so commercialised and so sanitised. I really found this loophole of being able to speak openly.”

Councillor Leon Goltsman moved an urgent motion last night, calling for the removal of the mural. Mayor of Waverley Council John Wakefield supported the right for Luke Cornish to have his artwork displayed. “Politicians should not be the arbiters of art.” On the other hand, Councillor Leon Goltsman who has been vocal in opposing the artwork said it ‘politicised’ Bondi Beach.

The urgent motion was voted on and declared lost. Mayor John Wakefield said, “The decision of Council gained cross-party support for a reasoned and considered approach which took into account- and paid respect to- the artist, as well as the views of those calling for the temporary mural to be removed, and those who wanted it to remain. Regrettably, someone has now taken the law into their own hands.”

Community support for Cornish’s controversial artwork has been overwhelming despite some backlash. A Change.Org petition called ‘Vote to save this mural at Bondi Beach’ has received over 1,900 supporters and calls for Waverley Council to keep the mural.

By contrast, the ‘Please Remove the ‘Not Welcome To Bondi’ Mural from Bondi Beach’ petition has only received over 800 supporters.

Public complaints minimal

Public complaints to Waverley Council were also minimal, with only nine recorded against the mural and three formal messages of support.

Cornish stated that while the artwork was confronting, there was never any motive to directly offend anyone.

“It’s never something I intended, to have that effect on people, especially when it’s new Australians that I’m trying to speak out for. I do apologise for that, but it’s collateral damage.”

Cornish said that despite the negative backlash, there was also quite a lot of positive feedback. “People are very appreciative, especially the people who have lived experiences. The only people getting upset about it are people who don’t have lived experiences, so what does that say?”

Cornish explained that his artwork was a call to action. “What’s the point of having all this noise being made about something and have nothing done. I’m sacrificing my f***ing anonymity and I want some f***ing results.”

Cornish also started his own Change.Org petition called ‘End offshore detention centres FFS’ in response to the controversy and has addressed it to Prime Minister Scott Morison. “It’s staying there until we can start providing humane treatment to asylum seekers. I’ll just keep repainting it until then but I’m happy to come and paint over it as soon as they get those men off Manus Island.”

Cornish explained that the Bondi Mural work was an extension of his THE SEA exhibition in the Bondi Pavilion Gallery.

Mayor John Wakefield said the exhibition process was approved under Council’s normal curatorial processes. He also encouraged others to see Luke Cornish’s exhibition at the Bondi Pavilion Gallery.

Political artworks nothing new 

A spokesperson from Waverley Council said political artworks on the Bondi Murals were nothing new.

“The Bondi Beach Sea Wall has been in operation since the late 1970s and has featured a mix of street and contemporary art with strong social and political messages throughout the decades.”

Cornish revealed that he had painted another political artwork on the Bondi Murals just a couple of years ago with another street artist friend.

“It was this big fat capitalist pig with his wife. She was wearing skins of dead Syrian children but her face was this sort of manicured poodle. The pig had his finger on a red button. I can’t remember what we called it, but it was very political. I think it went straight over people’s heads.”

Cornish was grateful that Waverley Council continues to support political artworks like his own.

“I genuinely appreciate that he [Waverley Mayor John Wakefield] is in my corner because it is so hard to speak up these days. He quite easily could have buckled under the pressure. I’ve caused a lot of grief for the Waverley Council and I apologise for that, but at the same time, I don’t apologise for what I did.”