Artists advocating for refugees

Art painted with instant coffee for a detainee at Villawood detention centre, Sydney.

The Refugee Art Project (RAP) was established in 2010 by Safdar Ahmed and Dr Omid Tofighian. They run free art classes at the Villawood (NSW) and Broadmeadows (Victoria) detention centres.

Some of the artworks, created by the asylum seekers, were on display at the recent Platform Art Space as part of the Human Rights Art and Film Festival. RAP is also organising the fear + hope exhibition featuring works by detained asylum seekers at the Mori Gallery in Sydney from June 20 to July 8. Visit for more information.

Yolanda Redrup spoke with Ahmed about the project. It is reprinted from .

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What inspired you to start the Refugee Art Project?

The Refugee Art Project was conceived by myself and a close friend, who was already working as an advocate for some Iranian, Iraqi and Kurdish asylum seekers in Villawood.

He and I are academics with a keen interest in social causes. I was once an artist, so we wanted to combine our desire to advocate for refugees with something that is meaningful at a cultural level.

I went into Villawood in October to conduct art classes and organise an exhibition for whoever was interested in participating. In a short space of time, we made some wonderful friends within the centre and had acquired some very powerful and moving works.

The project is now a loose collective of artists and academics (there are about seven of us), united by a concern for the wellbeing of refugees in detention.

What impact has the project had on the lives of the asylum seekers whose work is featured in the exhibition? Has it improved their time in Villawood?

The art classes have provided an expressive outlet and source of therapy for asylum seekers. They are able to express very personal themes that they may otherwise find difficult to put into words, which can be one step towards the reconciliation of past traumas.

The artistic moment is one of absorption, which diverts the mind from other stresses, potentially helping the individual to relax.

Moreover, the exhibition has given them a short-term event to look forward to and the sense that they will have some sort of public voice.

However, it would be going too far to say that their condition has “improved” as a result of our activities.

Most of them live under extreme mental duress for which they often struggle to concentrate on even the simplest tasks. Many suffer from anxiety and depression and are driven to acts of self-harm or have been traumatised by witnessing the self-harm or suicide of others within the centre.

They live with the constant fear that they will be returned to the country from which they have fled, or that the families they leave behind are in danger.

One of our Afghan artists has had two of his children killed by the Taliban during the year and a half he has waited in detention.

So while our classes are greatly appreciated, they cannot radically improve a person’s mental wellbeing in this context.

Whereabouts have the asylum seeker involved in the project come from?

So far, we have about 20 asylum seekers involved in the project, though more are joining all the time. Our artists are a diverse mixture of people, including men and women who come from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Iraq, Iran, the Kurdish regions of the Middle East, Pakistan, Nigeria and Indonesia.

Most of our artists live within Australian detention centres, though we also work with some who have been recently released into the community.

These include a number of children whose lives have been affected by detention, and whose works will occupy a special section of our Sydney exhibition.

Which artworks will be on display in the fear + hope exhibition?
There are a number of drawings on paper, some oil and acrylic paintings on canvas or canvas board, and some sculptures, that have been fashioned from materials that were available to the artist within the detention centre.

For instance, the electric massager was made by an asylum seeker who was an engineer in the country he has fled, and was built from an old DVD player, among other parts.

The maker of these pieces was not supposed to have steel implements in his room, so he fashioned hammers, screwdrivers, etc, from scrap and whatever parts he could find.

These improvised tools have been included in the show and the most beguiling I think are the brushes, which he made from plastic cutlery and cat hair (there is a cat that lives within the centre).

Also, among the drawings sent to Melbourne, there are some that are painted with instant coffee (diluted in water) onto paper. This was a technique that had been going on within the centre for some time, and was started by an artist who at one point had no access to paints.

Other pieces of art have been made with the food given to refugees within the centre. For instance, we will be showing a model replica of the Sydney Harbour Bridge that has been made with glue and straight spaghetti.

Such art represents the power of the individual to control his/her environment, by transmuting such base materials into objects of creative and aesthetic pleasure.

What messages do the asylum seekers involved hope to convey through their artwork?

The main message our asylum seekers wish to convey to the Australian public through this exhibition is that they are human beings who deserve the same levels of protection, dignity and respect as anyone else.

They are very aware they have been locked up for largely political reasons, and that the public discourse towards them within the media and among our main political parties is one of acrimony and fear.

For this reason, they are keen to demonstrate their creative talent and potential value to Australian society.

What do you hope to achieve through the Refugee Art Project?

Through this project we wish to throw a light on the extreme hardships faced by refugees within the detention environment. We want our exhibition to be a powerful example of “outsider art”, which asylum seekers are in a political sense, as well as forming a successful advocacy and educational campaign.

We hold our participants to be genuine artists who deserve acknowledgement for their works, which is to show that they are more than their circumstances.

What impact does art have on human rights?

The function of art cannot be separated from the question of human rights and claims to human dignity. Art touches upon universal human themes and is historically integral to experiences of freedom, it is important for an open and democratic society.

Repressive political regimes know this and have always sought to control the arts. Ours is primarily a fine art project, that we hope will transcend the political wrangling and polemics that so often accompany the issue of refugees.

Art cannot be confined nor dictated by politics, and remains an active agent of social change.

The project is determined by its own energy and drive, and many of our participants are not interested in pursuing theoretical stratagems or templates for making art.