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Alice Keath, Slava Grigoryan and Leonard Grigoryan, produced by ABC Classic, 2021

ALICE KEATH: Objects and stories from Australian life.

MULTIPLE VOICES: This is us.

LEONARD GRIGORYAN: Lifebuoy.

ALICE KEATH: When a big event takes place, we often remember the big brush strokes, the slogans or phrases that get printed and repeated.

RECORDING OF ROBERT MANNE: I can't remember one single issue which has more transformed politics.

RECORDING OF JOHN HOWARD: We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.

HISTORICAL RECORDING: No one could have predicted the dramatic sea-change ahead.

[Waves crashing]

ALICE KEATH: At dawn, August 24th in 2001 a 20-metre wooden fishing boat, the Palapa I, with 438 people — 369 men, 26 women and 43 children — became stranded in international waters about 140 kilometres north of Christmas Island. They were mainly Hazaras from Afghanistan.

The MV Tampa was a container ship owned and operated by a Norwegian shipping company. On August 26th 2001 the MV Tampa rescued hundreds of asylum seekers from that stranded fishing boat in international waters off Christmas Island and attempted to bring them to Australia.

A few weeks later, when media reporting about Tampa was at its peak, it was alleged that some of the people on the ship had thrown their children overboard as a way to be taken on to Australian maritime vessels to make it to the Australian mainland.

If you heard those reports, you might have pictured a lifebuoy like this one. This lifebuoy was part of the safety equipment used on the MV Tampa.

The asylum seekers became stranded on the Tampa when it was refused entry into Australian territorial waters. Many were in poor health, so the ship’s captain decided to enter Australian waters after making repeated requests for assistance. The government responded by dispatching 45 SAS troops to board the ship and prevent it from sailing any closer to Christmas Island.

The ‘Tampa affair’ — the images of 438 people crammed together of their small, damaged ship wearing life vests; of men, women and children crowded on board the deck of the cargo ship, seeking refuge — forced Australia to think about some big questions.

Guitarists and composers Slava and Leonard Grigoryan have written a piece of music in response to this item — this lifebuoy which is part of the collection at the National Museum of Australia. Here’s Slava.

SLAVA GRIGORYAN: Lenny and I have very strong feeling about the events that happened. It’s quite amazing to reflect on where we are now after the Tampa affair and how it changed border security in Australia thereafter.

I think that I was very moved by it at the time. With our particular background with our own family, the idea of Australia being a beacon of hope and possibilities was kind of shattered through these events, and the Tampa was right at the beginning of it.

ALICE KEATH: So many people have come to Australia by boat and Slava, as you mentioned, your family came to Australian from Kazakhstan. Why did you choose this particular object and how does it help us keep these questions in our hearts and minds?

SLAVA GRIGORYAN: I think the idea that we need to remember and talk about it more, that will help us make better decisions in the future. I think learning from history is paramount here.

ALICE KEATH: That’s Slava Grigoryan and here is the Grigoryan Brothers’ musical reflection on this object, it’s called ‘Desperation’.

[‘Desperation’ played by Leonard and Slava Grigoryan]

ALICE KEATH: ‘Desperation’ written and performed by the Grigoryan Brothers. I’m Alice Keath and This is us: A musical reflection of Australia was commissioned by the National Museum of Australia to mark their 20th anniversary. Head to the ABC Classic website to view the objects, find out more and buy the Grigoryan Brothers album featuring all of the music in the project.

Disclaimer and Copyright notice
This is an edited transcript typed from an audio recording.
The National Museum of Australia cannot guarantee its complete accuracy.
© National Museum of Australia 2007–21. This transcript is copyright and is intended for your general use and information. You may download, display, print and reproduce it in unaltered form only for your personal, non-commercial use or for use within your organisation. Apart from any use as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) all other rights are reserved.

Date published: 09 March 2021

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