A life of fear+hope
Giving nameless and faceless refugees a voice, the ‘fear+hope’ exhibition showcases art produced by refugees at the Villawood Detention Centre. Jennine Abdul Khalik writes.
Amid constant debate over Australia’s immigration policy, a collection of drawings, paintings, photographs, videos and sculptures of over twenty refugees who have been, or are currently detained in Australian detention centres, tells the personal stories of those who live it.
Organised by academic Lisa Worthington with Dr. Safdar Ahmed, Dr. Omid Tofighian, artist Anton Pulvirenti and Bilquis Ghani, the ‘fear+hope’ exhibition opened on the 20th of June during Refugee Week at Sydney’s Mori Gallery. The exhibition is a showcase of work produced by detainees at the Villawood Detention Centre under The Refugee Art Project.
The opening night was attended by an estimated 300 guests and Worthington says she was in awe of the turn-out.
“It was exciting that other people would get to see work done by detainees…we’re hoping this exhibition isn’t a one off and that the show can travel to other galleries,” Worthington says.
On Worthington’s Facebook profile, a detainee from the Villawood Detention Centre wrote:
“To whom it may concern, please support me to live in the Australian community”.
The note on Worthington’s profile written by detainee Alwy Fadhel is a poignant reminder of the sentiment and themes explored in the fear+hope exhibition.
Fadhel has been living in uncertainty for three-and-a-half years and has his own paintings on display. His most prominent piece -of a veil-clad woman wearing a fierce and powerful expression- was painted with instant coffee on paper and is being used to promote the exhibition.
The Refugee Art Project is a series of art classes conducted at the Villawood detention centre. Worthington says the collection of works at the Mori Gallery is the accumulation of seven months of collaborating with detainees.
The exhibition is not an exclusive show where art connoisseurs lower their spectacles to peruse and glaze over strokes and canvases with scrutiny over drinks and hors d’oeuvres, however. It unravels the human side of nameless and faceless refugees who are criminalised by barbed wire fences and dehumanised by sensational media reports that often sing to the tune of political slogans.
The name of the exhibition ‘fear+hope’ itself, illustrates the clash between the hopefulness of asylum seekers and the national hostility and fear of the ‘other’ and the ‘outsider’ that they are met with.
“It exemplifies the juxtaposition of [asylum seekers] coming to Australia with real hope and starting a new life,” Worthington says.
“There’s a fear created by the media and this discourse we have about ‘queue jumpers’…that asylum seekers steal jobs [and] are here to propagate their religion and way of life.”
But the exhibition breaks through this red tape.
“They’re not allowed to speak out in Villawood…immigration policies in general silence them. People in exile are also able to say things they might not normally be able to say in their home countries,” Worthington says.
A detainee participating in the project once explained to Worthington that he found it hard to communicate and connect with other detainees.
“Everyone else is experiencing their own emotional trauma making it hard to seek support.”
“Many of these refugees have already been oppressed, tortured, and have gone through other emotional and devastating events in their lives.”
Art keeps the refugees occupied; it suspends reality and allows them to escape their plight for a moment.
Trapped and confined with very little freedom of movement, The Refugee Art Project has given refugees an emotional and therapeutic outlet, and offers a portal to a world beyond the walls of the Villawood Detention Centre.
Many of the artworks – described by Worthington as raw, undeniably human and unpolished – are for sale. All proceeds will be given to the artists. Mori Gallery is hosting the exhibition free of charge.
Worthington says most detainees have families in their place of origin and send money back home to support them.
As Fadhel wrote, the feelings encapsulated in the fear+hope exhibition is not just the concerns of strangers behind walls in detention centres but of us, ordinary everyday Australians.
The exhibition is open on Tuesday to Sunday from 11am to 5pm and open until 8pm on Wednesdays until July 8.