Refugee Art Project amplifies asylum seeker voices

'Despair', a piece produced by Mohammad as part of the Refugee Art Project.

Refugee Art Project is a not-for-profit community art organisation that holds art workshops for asylum seekers and refugees — both within the Villawood detention centre and in its studio in north Parramatta. Eila Vinwynn spoke to Safdar Ahmed, who founded the group about its work and aims.


The aim of our organisation is to amplify the voices of refugees, through their art, and show their work to the wider community. The aim is to educate the public and challenge misconceptions that surround the refugee issue in this country.

I started the group with some friends, Bilquis Ghani and Omid Tofighian, in late 2010. I had just finished my PhD at the University of Sydney in Islamic Studies and was looking for something active to do. After four-and-a-half years of pretty intense PhD-ing, I was itching to get out into the real world. 

The project began very informally. I was visiting the Villawood detention centre for the first time, but wondered if I might be able to contribute something. Given that I’ve also studied art, I asked if anyone wanted to draw with us.

We brought lots of sketch books and pencils, and soon established an art group within the centre. We sought to create a safe space where people felt free to express themselves to their own comfort. The work that flowed from that was very powerful. 

Our art workshops in the community are held every Saturday afternoon in our North Parramatta studio. Our organisation is run solely by volunteers and supported by one-off donations, our own fundraising efforts and donated art materials.

Anyone of a refugee background is welcome to come along and join in if they are keen. Our exhibitions and publications are made in close collaboration with all of our participants.

Basically it’s about centring the diverse voices and perspectives of the asylum seekers and refugees who come to this country — activating art in the struggle for human dignity.

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