Detention centre project spruiks art and humanity

On Monday evening prominent Sydney neurosurgeon, Charlie Teo, delivered this year's prestigious Australia Day address at the NSW Conservatorium of Music. In it he denounced racism in Australia, and called on politicians to be more compassionate towards asylum seekers.

'I believe Australia has a moral and social obligation to demonstrate a higher level of kindness to and acceptance of refugees,' he said. 'I don't know how this may be achieved but I certainly know both sides of the political fence are floundering.'

This interview on Eureka Street TV is with a man who exemplifies a kind and compassionate approach to asylum seekers. Sydney based academic and artist, Safdar Ahmed, along with his friend Omid Tofighian, started the Refugee Art Project in 2010.

With other artists, they run free art classes in detention centres in NSW and Victoria. None of them are art therapists, so there is no formal therapeutic goal. Their aim is just to share their skills, to act as friends and mentors, and to provide an opportunity for artistic diversion and expression.

The classes were so successful, and the artworks produced were of such quality that Ahmed and his collaborators mounted an exhibition of works at the Mori Gallery in Sydney in June and July last year, with a follow-up exhibition and conference at Sydney University in December.

In the video, Ahmed gives a guided tour of some of the artworks featured in the exhibition, and explains how the detainees benefit from exploring their experiences through art.

'They are able to express very personal themes that they may otherwise find difficult to put into words, which can be one step towards the reconciliation of past traumas,' he has said. 'The artistic moment is one of absorption, which diverts the mind from other stresses, potentially helping the individual relax.'

Ahmed's family background and academic study prepared him well for this work with refugees. Though he didn't have a strongly religious upbringing, he grew up in Australia with an Indian Muslim father and English mother.

He went to India to spend time with his father's family and this led to an abiding interest in Muslim history and culture, and an appreciation of the diversity within Islam in India. This inspired further travels to Pakistan, Iran and a number of Gulf states.

At university he pursued studies in fine arts, religion, and the history and culture of Islam. The thesis for his PhD considers Islamic reformist movements, both fundamentalist and moderate. His interest in human rights is inspired by the emphasis on social justice in Islam. 

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Peter KirkwoodPeter Kirkwood is a freelance writer and video consultant who worked for 23 years in the Religion and Ethics Unit of ABC TV. He has a Master's degree from the Sydney College of Divinity. 

Topic tags: Peter Kirkwood, Eureka Street TV, Safdar Ahmed, Refugee Art Project



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