Artists’ exhibition critical of religion declared racist by gallery owner are then sued for writing about it (Melbourne, Australia)
Artists Lee-Anne Raymond and Demetrios Vakras are being sued for defamation after reporting their exhibition experience at an Australian gallery in 2009. On opening night, the gallery owner declared the work and the show were racist, ordering the artists out of the gallery, dis-endorsing the show and effectively closing it down with disclaimers.
This is our story.
We are artists, Australian surrealist painters. We are currently being sued by a former gallery owner for writing about what he did to us during our exhibition at his gallery in 2009.
In 2009 we, Lee-Anne Raymond and Demetrios Vakras, held an exhibition in Melbourne, Australia at a for-hire gallery, Guildford Lane Gallery (which has since closed). To accompany the exhibition, and to generate some form of income, we produced a full colour publication that included our art manifesto. The catalogue was to be available for sale from its launch at the opening night event and through to the exhibition’s conclusion.
Toward the end of the opening night event the gallery owner, Robert Cripps, launched a tirade of abuse at us. He declared the entire show to be racist, demanded that we leave the gallery and that he did not want racists, our racism, or racist art in his gallery. This occurred before a crowd of onlookers who were still present, none of whom we knew.
Somewhat prior to his tirade, Cripps had refused to allow our publication to be sold, even though it was a subject discussed at considerable length months prior to our exhibition.
After the opening night tirade we did not return to the gallery the next day. The gallery owner made clear to us that the exhibition was terminated. We were waiting for some form of written confirmation (which never materialized to request that we remove our work and formalize the closing down of the exhibition. On the second day after the tirade we went in to gallery to allay our concerns and our works were still hanging. The gallery owner was not present.
The day after this inspection we were informed by a friend about disclaimers that had been posted throughout and leading to our exhibition space. These were disclaimers of liability installed by the gallery owner over the “content” of our show, with the addition of a large sign saying “WARNING” on the stairs leading up to the show which was intended to dissuade visitors from entering.
Elements of what was written in the publication were printed as extracts and pinned next to the paintings they were associated with. Some essays were critical of religious-based violence. These essays criticized Christianity, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Islam and Hinduism. The “racism” charge leveled at us by Robert Cripps was because he claimed any criticism by atheists of Islam, and only Islam, was racist as it did not, according to him, consider the “sensitive situation of the Palestinians”. There was no mention of this conflict or Palestine or Palestinians by us in any part of the content.
We were subsequently subjected to an another tirade when we returned to document the disclaimers. Again, Cripps proclaimed that we were racists, demanded we leave, that we were trespassing, and that he had called the police to remove us for trespass. We offered to remove our work for a full refund which he refused claiming the “racism breached the contract”. Our exhibition was ruined, we were prevented from entering the space we hired for the show, and the gallery owner refused to even be seen to support the show in any manner lest, in contradiction of his disclaimers, he might be seen to be endorsing it. The gallery staff were complicit in that they did nothing to contradict the gallery owner’s lies that he claimed he had made on their behalf. Only now some 3 1/2 years later has one of the gallery staff come forward.
When the “exhibition” term ended we were permitted to enter but only so we could remove our works. For nearly 3 weeks our paintings had hung in this gallery unattended without anyone to defend them against the disclaimers or to sell them as we were denied entry to do so. Essentially our paintings were in “storage” not on “show”. Subsequently Cripps then withheld the money we had paid as a bond as well as money made in the one small sale which had been made prior to his outburst on the opening night when he ordered us out of his gallery. We wrote of our experience on our respective art websites. On April fool’s day 2011 Cripps served us each with a writ for “defamation”. Australian defamation law, like the UK libel laws, has it that if you defend yourself by stating the truth, then you are making an admission of having defamed the plaintiff (Cripps). Though the law’s position is that Cripps cannot be compensated, that is, make a financial gain if the material that defames him is actually true, a defendant, as in our particular case, is financially ruined in defending themselves. In Australian law all he has to show is that he is aggrieved that something bad is written to be able to sue anyone. He does not have to prove anything. We do. It is expensive to sue, and so only someone who is wealthy can proceed. As he boasted of selling his gallery building at a “record” price of over 3.5 million dollars, he has the financial resources to sue us.
To date we have spent AUD$100,000.00 (= €77,000.00; or USD$104,000.00) on our defense The trial date has only just been confirmed for September 9, 2013. The estimated costs by our counsel that we must pay in advance, before trial, is approximately AUD$130,000.00. This will make the total cost of our defense nearly a quarter of a million Australian dollars!
As mentioned, none of the staff (either the paid or unpaid) present Cripps’ tirades came forward to support us at the time. Only in the week(s) prior to our approaching ArtLeaks did one of his staff come forward as a witness supporting not only that he called us racists, but that he had told all of his staff that we were racists and that he would call the police upon our entering the gallery.
We are on our own here. In Australia the sympathies lie with the liar who is exposed, with the messenger being considered evil, because we reported on the actions that he undertook. We feel abandoned and pretty much shunned by the Australian arts sector. We feel persecuted by a bully with financial means greater than ours and who has the support of our own country’s legal system. Australian law guarantees that this kind of bullying succeeds because by law, anyone who reports on this matter can be sued. ANYONE. One small newspaper here, the Melbourne Observer, that did write a summary of the matter by quoting form a court-released document has been threatened with a law-suit as well. Indeed, Australian law is such that we can be sued for additional damages simply for writing to you about this matter.
We are the only one’s who have spoken out against a person who has victimized many over many years. We refuse to allow our honor and integrity to be diminished without answer. If any reader wishes to show support by writing to us or about us and our situation this is welcome. Matters such as this need to be exposed. A culture that allows bullies like this to profit by persecuting others and with the seeming support of the law must be exposed. We have written and posted a petition calling for reform of the Australian Defamation Act 2005. Supporting our petition will shine a light on how the law is being used to censor and chill the transmission of information. Please go here to sign our petition. https://www.change.org/en-AU/petitions/the-hon-mark-dreyfus-qc-mp-amend-the-australian-defamation-act-2005
To provide practical help for our defense readers can do so by purchasing a copy of the catalogue we never had the chance to launch at the exhibition.
With our kind regards,
To consult more documentation around this case please see Redleg V Artists.