Profile: Artist uses graphic novels to illustrate realities of Australian immigration detention
Refugees and asylum seekers from the Middle East trying to reach Europe have dominated the world news in recent months. But this story of desperate people boarding often dangerous boats trying to reach a safe country is familiar to many in Australia. For more more than a decade, smaller numbers of refugees from the Middle East and parts of Asia have tried to reach the island nation, and it has long been a politically charged topic.
For years, these asylum-seekers have been subjected to long and indefinite stints in prison-like detention centers, some on the mainland and others on two remote Pacific islands — Nauru and Papua New Guinea’s Manus Island.
Monday, a young woman, a refugee from Somalia, set herself on fire at the center on Nauru. She was the second detainee there to self-immolate in a matter of days, the first died as a result of his injuries. The desperate political actions come on the heels of a recent decision by the Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea that ruled the detention of asylum seekers unconstitutional and ordered the closure of the Manus Island facility.
Still and video cameras are not allowed inside these detention centers, however, as FSRN’s Jarni Blakkarly reports, one Sydney-based artist has found a way around the rules and is telling the stories of those in detention through graphic novels.
“My name is Safdar Ahmed. I’m 40 years of age. I’m an academic and an artist. I have a PhD in Islamic studies. I’ve also been an artists since leaving high school, so my art practice focuses on issues of identity and belonging,” says Safdar Ahmed, a founding member of the Refugee Art Project, a group that supports refugees and asylum seekers to express themselves through art.
In 2010 he started visiting the Villawood Detention Center on the outskirts of Sydney and giving art classes to those detained inside. No video or photographic images of refugees come out of the detention centers, something Ahmed says contributes to their erasure from Australian public discourse.
“No cameras, no phones, no recording equipment is allowed inside Australia’s detention system. There is no way of getting people’s images and stories out, except through drawing,” Ahmed explains. “So for me it was important to make this comic to give a sense of the physical environment of the detention center and to communicate in a visual medium the problems that people face inside detention. Unless someone visits a detention center, most people have absolutely no clue what that they look like and what that physical environment does to people, because it is a form of incarceration, it is a form of imprisonment. Detention centers are so restricted that this is one of the only ways, I think, drawing and animation, that you can give people an understand of what it’s actually like.”
While he drew the online graphic novel last year, Ahmed says it was a culmination of years of experiences visiting the center.
“Basically, [it] brought together a lot of experiences I’ve had as a visitor but also a lot of the anecdotes and stories that people I’ve worked with, from Refugee Art Project through our workshops, had been telling me. So basically interviewing them, getting their consent to be in the comic, often changing their names and identities, and bringing together a whole bunch of impressions, and stories, and anecdotes to try and create a composite picture of what Villawood is like for people who are there indefinitely, for years on end, who don’t know when they are going to get out,” says Ahmed. “So, it contains a number of stories of the abuses people face at the hands of officers, and just the chronic feeling of limbo, the chronic feeling of anxiety and uncertainty that hangs over everyone who experiences detention.”
Ahmed says he was inspired by the artists like Joe Sacco, Art Spiegelman and Robert Crumb who pioneered comics as a documentary medium.
“There is a very strong tradition in underground comics of addressing very difficult topics, or addressing topics in a very irreverent way, that is true to the individuality and self-expression of that person,” points out Ahmed. “And for me, that honesty and that self-reflexivity is something that I wanted to bring to the comic. I wanted to show myself as a visitor to Villawood, to communicate to the reader that these are my observations and interpretations of the center, so as to not in any way appropriate or speak on behalf of refugees.”
The graphic novel “Villawood: Notes from an Immigration Detention Center” went on to win Australia’s top journalism award in 2015, the Walkley, in the art category. Ahmed says the medium of comics is an underrated form of communication.
“On one hand, it allows you to depict something, but then it allows the maker, or the artist, to filter that thing through their subjective lens, through their style. Which is how all of us experience the world. So, for me, that type of comic journalism is a very honest way of approaching any subject,” Ahmed explains. “It doesn’t pretend I’m adopting a God’s Eye-view of the detention center, or I’m simply conveying an objective picture of everything that’s ever happened there. I think comics is a very important way of conveying things in that sense. It’s a very unpretentious, admittedly subjective, but at the same time very compelling, way to show people what’s going on.”
Australian immigration authorities currently hold around 1,800 people in their detention centers, including around 100 children. Many come from Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran and Sri Lanka. The government has refused to resettle any refugees who arrived after 2013 in Australia. Those who arrived after then face indefinite detention or the option of voluntary resettlement in other unstable and impoverished nations, like Nauru, Papua New Guinea or Cambodia.
Last year, the United Nations found Australia’s offshore detention center breached the International Convention against Torture. So, while hundreds of refugees remain in these detention centers and the topic remains a politically sensitive issue, Ahmed hopes that his comics will help humanize those behind bars punished for trying to seek safety.