A public and determined boycott campaign has notched an important win for opponents of mandatory detention.  The Sydney Biennale arts festival announced on 7 March that it is cutting ties with Transfield.

The event, promoted as “Australia’s largest and most exciting contemporary visual arts festival”, might seem a world away from the horrors of Australia’s gulags. But it has long been funded by Transfield, a mandatory detention contractor.

In 2012, on the bank of the Yarra River in Melbourne’s CBD, I set fire to an artwork of mine called No Nauru. It was a response to the Australian Labor Party reopening offshore detention facilities and granting $24.5 million to the multinational corporation Transfield to provide services and infrastructure on Nauru.

Last month, Transfield again received a contract, this time worth $1.2 billion, from the Abbott government, to provide “garrison and welfare services” for Nauru and Manus Island refugee detention centres.

The relationship between Transfield and the Biennale prompted arts educator Matthew Kiem to call for a boycott of the event. His open letter, posted on social media in early February, argues that Transfield is profiting from the misery of refugees. “Profits from mandatory detention fund the Biennale”, he wrote.

A Facebook page called Boycott the 19th Biennale of Sydney quickly gained well over a thousand likes. A website of the same name bears the slogan “Boycott Sydney Biennale – Don’t Add Value to Detention – Boycott, Divest, Disrupt”.

One of the aims of the boycott was to convince the 90 artists presenting exhibits to pull out. There was a decent response – more than 30 Biennale artists formed a working group to pressure the directors to sever ties with Transfield.

A protest action in support of the boycott was planned for 24 February. It was to be held at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art – next to the Victorian College of the Arts, where a Biennale promotional event was to occur. However, in the boycott’s first small victory, the promotional event was cancelled. The protesters instead had a meeting to plan further boycott strategies.

At this stage, Biennale directors, however, remain unmoved: “We unanimously believe that our loyalty to the Belgiorno-Nettis family [owners of Transfield] and the hundreds of thousands of people who benefit from the Biennale must override claims over which there is ambiguity”, said the directors in response.

But pressure continued to build. An initial group of five artists withdrew their work, then another four. An installer, Peter Nelson, also resigned. “The relationship between the Biennale and the punitive practice of mandatory detention is a context that I feel I am unable to work within”, he said.

Eventually, the boycott proved effective. “We have listened to the artists who are the heart of the Biennale and have decided to end our partnership with Transfield effective immediately”, read the Biennale organisers statement.

[A public forum, “Artists, Boycotts and Movements”, supported by the Victorian College of the Arts Student Association, is scheduled for 18 March, 1-2pm, Cinema 2, VCA, St Kilda Rd, Melbourne.]