There’s no shortage of voices speaking on behalf of refugees and asylum-seekers. Whether it’s a soulless politician using rhetoric to paint a picture of the seedy, criminal ‘illegal’ en route to steal our jobs, an aid organisation trying to get us to sit up and take notice of the dire situation so many find themselves in or a mainstream media intent on flashing pictures of sinking boats and crying children without caring at all about the people in the images, there are voices. And they never stop.
This is why the Refugee Art Project is so special. What started out as an art class for refugees has evolved into a means of creative expression for people whose voices have been silenced. We caught up with Dr. Safdar Ahmed, one of the project’s creators, to find out more about the work they’re doing.
How did the Refugee Art Project get started?
“In late 2010 some friends and I hatched the idea of holding art classes inside the Villawood detention centre and curating an exhibition from the works provided. I studied Fine Art at the National Art School in Sydney and had always wanted to teach drawing. The lessons were daunting at first because we were new to Villawood and unused to running an art class, but we soon met some very talented people which brought a lot of joy and excitement into the project. Most of our participants come from Afghanistan, Iran, Sri Lanka and Burma, which are some of the largest refugee producing countries in the world. Because many of them had never made art before, it was a real joy to see them realize their talent and polish it into something special. Our exhibitions were well received which gave us the encouragement to keep going and expand our project into new mediums and genres of art. Our overall aim is to give asylum seekers and refugees a voice to the public through their creativity and self-expression.”
What inspired you to help communicate in this way through art?
“I feel lucky to have had art in my life since I was a small child. One of my earliest memories is of drawing sheep on a hill—with the broad, swirly, ungainly marks of a toddler—and having the most intense thrill from realising that I could represent things. Art later helped me through a period of chronic depression in my teenage years, in which I self-harmed and became suicidal at one point. There are a number of things that pulled me out of that but when I look back on it I remember drawing as something special, being one of the few things that I genuinely enjoyed. Without projecting my experiences onto others, I’d like to think that our art class provides moments of respite and immersion for the refugees we work with. I think it helps them visualise their experiences in a creative way, which is to question and resolve things asbtractly or indirectly. ”
“And though an art class cannot reverse the illness, anxiety, depression, incidences of self-harm and suicide that occur in our detention centes–if it can ease the stress in that environment for just a few hours then of course it’s worthwhile.”
On Sunday, December 1st, you’re launching four zines. Talk us through those…
“The 4 zines that we have made thus far allow us to arrange artwork, poetry and writing according to specific themes and ideas. The first zine emerged from months of sequential art classes inside Villawood (‘sequental art’ being the fancy term for comics) and contains a collection of single page stories. Some are written and drawn wholly by asylum seekers whilst others are collaborations between asylum seekers and Refugee Art Project volunteers. These stories open a window onto the experiences and feelings of people in detention.
“One zine is a tribute to Ahmad Ali Jafari, a twenty six year old Afghan asylum seeker who was a good friend of ours and a regular member of our art class.”
“Ahmad passed away of a heart attack in the Villawood detention centre in late June, 2013. Because he died under traumatic circumstances, this zine provided a chance to grieve for him and to honour his memory. The zine contains examples of his poetry and a short comic that he drew.”
“It tells how the Department of Immigration brought him into detention after claiming he had served a prison sentence in the UK. This was a case of mistaken identity and though he succeeded in clearing his name he was nonetheless kept at Villawood for months on end, which put him under enormous stress. Words can’t describe what a lovely guy he was and we still miss him terribly.”4. If you could elicit only one reaction from this project, what would that reaction be?
“If I could elicit just one reaction from this project it would be that people might be so swayed by a drawing or painting, and the story of the person who made it, as to challenge their opinions and understand the refugee issue in greater depth and complexity, whatever their prior views might have been.”
“There are plenty of refugee haters out there but most of them don’t understand the true reasons people become refugees in the first place. Perhaps when they hear from or receive the perspective of a real asylum seeker (as opposed to the dark, seedy, ‘queue jumper’ of popular imagination) they might start to view the situation with more sympathy and understanding. I live in hope!”
The Refugee Art Project will be launching their zines on Sunday 1 December at Berkelouw Books in Paddington, Sydney. For more information go to: http://therefugeeartproject.com/home/zinelaunch/.