Tell us a bit about yourself and the lovely folks who help out at Refugee Art Project…
I’m an academic and artist who’s always loved comics and zines. I’m the director of Refugee Art Project and I conduct most of its art workshops. We’re a small but dedicated team of students, artists, teachers, filmmakers, and a web-designer. We are Fernanda Miranda, Zeina Iaali, Anjali Vishwanathan, Daz Chandler, Agnieszka Switala, Anton Pulvirenti, Ahmed Salameh, and a few other awesome volunteers. Our most important participants are of course the asylum seekers and refugees we collaborate with, whose work fills our zines and who have made the project into a beautiful and compelling thing.
Can you give us a bit of background on Refugee Art Project, what it’s about and how it started?
Refugee Art Project is a small not-for-profit community arts organisation that supports the art and self-expression of asylum seekers and refugees. We have conducted weekly art workshops with people inside the Villawood detention centre for the last three and a half years, and have held an art workshop for refugee women in Parramatta since last year. With the material from these workshops we hold public exhibitions, engage in collaborative projects, and gather contributions for our zines, of which we’ve made seven to date. The art is fascinating because it reflects the personality, resilience and agency of people who are locked up in indefinite detention, despite committing no crimes, sometimes for up to four or five years. We are ultimately trying to create and activate art in the struggle for refugee rights and social justice.
When you started the zine, what was it you were trying to do? And now that you’re seven issues in, is this still the same for you today?
When we made the first zines, it was about producing unique collections of comics, drawings, poetry, and writing by refugees, which most Australians have had no exposure to. The vision behind that hasn’t changed and we’re hoping to create a whole library of refugee art zines – to stand as a powerful and unique historical record of what refugees are currently experiencing.
While the content is very diverse, there seems to be thematic link in each issue. For example, there’s one issue that focuses on young people, and another that’s about the experiences of women. How do you decide what to feature in the issues?
The zines are largely directed by the circumstances, thoughts and reflections of our refugee participants, and are developed through a process of collaboration. This is especially true for the two zines that contain the art of individuals, one being Murtaza Ali Jafari, a Hazara Afghan refugee who made his first drawings in Villawood, and the other being the work of Mohammad, a talented Burmese refugee. Sometimes a dominant theme will hold sway and the strongest in this context is a tribute zine that we made for our friend, Ahmad Ali Jafari. He had been in Villawood for one year and was a regular presence in our art workshops, before he died of a heart attack at the age of 26. He was mocked and ridiculed at the time of his death (you can read more about that here) and the coronial inquiry is still unfinished.
What are some of the things we can look forward to in your latest issue?
Our most recent issue was a young person’s zine made with refugee kids at Fairfield High School, which we are very proud of. It emerged from a workshop conducted by Zeina Iaali, who is an excellent artist and educator. The kids made single page comics that were inspired by the vivid imagery of our participants in detention. Crucially, it gave them a chance to tell their own stories. As for what’s happening now, we are currently working on a huge collaborative drawing on the theme of ‘utopia’ that will be exhibited in Sydney and Vienna this year. The drawings for that are incredible and I think a fascinating zine will come from it. I would also like for us to make some slightly larger, colour-printed zines, because thus far we’ve only worked in black and white.
What have been some of your personal highlights so far?
[A] personal highlight has been the comics refugees have made to express their feelings and experiences. I think underground comics are a fascinating artistic and political form with a proud history of subversive truth-telling, so it’s great that our zines have added to that. Another highlight has been the warm reception our little books have found within the zine community, and from the public in general.
How can we get involved with the project?
You can check out our zines and recommend them to your local libraries, schools and universities. Otherwise we are always in need of donations to keep afloat, be they financial or in the form of basic art materials, such as pencils, sketchbooks, watercolour paints and brushes.
Who: Safdar Ahmed
What: Refugee Art Project
Where: Berkelouw Books (19 Oxford St, Paddington) and Jura Books (440 Parramatta Rd, Petersham)
Featured image: Murtaza Ali Jafari, ‘Australia’, pencil on paper, 49 x 29 cm