If a cartoon can be defined as thinking on paper, then painting is feeling on paper. No more cogent evidence of this proposition could be gazed upon than at the highly successful official opening recently of Life in Limbo, the new exhibition of paintings, drawings and cartoons by refugees at the Braemer Gallery, Springwood.
That this touring exhibition has debuted in the Blue Mountains is a small coup and pointer to a personal connection with Safdar Ahmed. Safdar is the main organiser and founder of the Refugee Art Project, the unique soil from which this exhibition bloomed. The RAP are a small collective of academics and artists who formed in late 2010 and began going into the Villawood detention centre to provide art classes for asylum seekers. The group now consists of Safdar, Bilquis Ghani, Chrissie Ianssen, Anton Pulvirenti and Vanessa Marks.
Safdar grew up in Leura before moving to Sydney where he gained a fine arts degree at the National Art School in 1999 and currently teaches history at the University of Sydney’s Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies. He regularly gives art classes in Villawood Detention Centre.
The works are by refugees in community detention or currently inside Centres in various states. It is the second such exhibition, the first being held in Sydney in 2011 under the moniker, Fear and Hope.
The Braemar opening managed an amnesty from the rain patterns of late and was glazed in russet sunshine. Official guests included Federal Senator, Doug Cameron (and his wife), Susan Templeman (Labor spokeswoman) and Louis Markus, member for Blue Mountains.
In opening remarks Safdar noted, “We have a number of participants who have fled various wars and conflicts around the world. They come from such countries as Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria, the Kurdish regions of the Middle East, Sri Lanka, Burma, Indonesia and elsewhere”.
“You will notice when you look at the caption cards next to works that in many cases we concealed the identities of the artists. This is because we want to respect the privacy of everyone whose case is in process. Sometimes detainees worry that revealing their identities will have negative consequences with the Department of Immigration for their refugee claims. Very often they are worried that the regimes from which they have fled will discover where they are, which might endanger their families back home”.
“The work in this exhibition shows the tenacity, hope and faith of people who have fled the most hellish circumstances to try and forge a new life for themselves and their families. If there is a thread that runs through all of the works in this exhibition, it is the desire to be heard, to be acknowledged, and to be treated with dignity and respect.”
Safdar introduced the refugee painter, Kamelesh, who spoke plaintively of his experiences and feelings about detention and the vitalness of being able to express in paint.
The keynote speech was given by renowned sculptor and artist, Terrance Plowright, who said in part, “Many aspects of our political life, everywhere, seem catatonic with a kind of narcissism. Our major Parties are content to lock themselves in narrow, bare rooms.
“The debate around Asylum Seekers is a case in point. There appears to be a race to the bottom, a place where all decency is dissolving. This is made obvious when our leaders lock up children.”
Mr Plowright recounted three personal interactions with refugees, including some Cambodians in Fairfield, that gradually moved him to think about and act on this issue. “I have looked at this wonderful display of works and seen the content,” he concluded, “and more importantly gained some insight into, and feeling for, the people who have painted and drawn.”
The three rooms of framed works were jammed at one point by the some 180 people who attended the launch. They also talked with a handful of community detention refugees, some of them artists. A highlight was one room dedicated to the ‘coffee’ paintings of Alwy Fadhel. Taught the distinctive technique by an Iraqi refugee due to a shortage of paint, Alwy mixes instant coffee and water and elicits landscapes and highly moving portraits in a sepia washed introspectiveness.
Alwy has now been detained for 4 years and 2 months, one of the longest running cases of indefinite detention. Many of the artisits learned to paint and draw wholly within the confines of detention.
The exhibition ends here June 24, then opens in Sydney at the UTS gallery space on July 5 and thereafter to Melbourne. Great support was given by the Blue Mountains Refugee Support Group as well as half a dozen local businesses.