The Invisible: art and trauma of displaced refugees
What unites a UNHCR family tent, a 19th century Kurdish poet and the Nauru detention centre? Each inspired many of the artworks featured in ‘The Invisible’, an exhibition that explored the effects of displacement, dispossession, migration, vilification, trauma and memory, for refugees.
The exhibition, on display at UTS Art Gallery in late 2017, saw featured artists draw on their own refugee backgrounds to create evocative and powerful works in painting, video, sculpture, installation and photography.
“Refugees are blemished figures in Australia, which has become a global pattern now,” said exhibition curator and artist Abdul Karim Hekmat.
“Art is a powerful way to emphasise our humanity and commonality and create a humanising space for others to connect. We refugees after all are not so different.”
The exhibiting artists transformed both personal and collective experience to make visible the daily lives and struggles of people who are displaced by IS in the Middle East.
Rushdi Anwar returned to his homeland of Kurdistan to spend four months in Iraqi refugee camps where 1.5 million people live in uncertainty. Working with local artisans and school-aged children he produced a unique recreation of a standard-issue UNHCR family tent, giving insight into the daily life and experiences of those in the camps.
Other contributions included the works of Avan Anwar, who transformed the words of 19th century Kurdish poet Nali, composed in exile from his homeland, into sculptural installations using fragile materials – paper, plaster and aluminium foil. While Khadim Ali employed his traditional training in miniature painting to highlight dehumanisation of refugees seeking asylum, Elyas Alavi’s finely painted portraits on glass suggest the untold narratives of the 90 Hazara people killed in an IS bomb blast while protesting in the Afghanistan capital Kabul in 2016, an event the artist witnessed and survived.
Exhibition curator and artist Abdul Karim Hekmat presented a video work composed from material recorded by refugees currently detained on Nauru.
“This work gives visibility to those voices our government silenced and marooned on an island where they face violence on a regular basis,” he said.
On top of these thought-provoking artworks, the exhibition’s accompanying print catalogue included commissioned writing from Linda Jaivin and Deborah Adelaide, an artist talk, public programs and school workshops supported by grant funding from Create NSW.
UTS Art Learning and Projects extended the impact of the exhibition via two workshops for high school students from Mt St Benedict. These were run with the artists Abdul Hekmat, Elyas Alavi and Rushdi Anwar and outcomes from these workshops were screened at a public forum.
The sold-out public forum, ‘What is a refugee?’ featured Julian Burnside AO QC, Abdul Karim Hekmat, Professor William Maley, Niamatullah Ibrahimi, Professor Jock Collins and Hannah Factor discussing the current status of asylum seekers and refugees in Australia, the struggle for recognition by Hazaras in Afghanistan and the role of art in changing public perception.
Audiences visiting ‘The Invisible’ commented on the impact of the works on show and their powerful representation of displacement, dispossession, migration, vilification, trauma and memory.
“We are all survivors of violence, terror and atrocity at some points in our lives,” Hekmat said.
“The artworks in ‘The Invisible’ are a re-enactment of past traumatic memories or current experiences, of traces of deep wounds, which are not seen by many.”
Hekmat, along with the UTS ART team, were presented with the ‘Creative Media Social Justice’ Award at the 2018 UTS Human Rights Awards for their work on the exhibition.
The Award recognised an audio, visual or multimedia project in which social justice and human rights themes are explored.