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. 

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



submit a comment

Existing comments

Inspiring beautiful touching heartwarming work ... Hats off for the people at the Refugee Art Project...
Saba | 25 January 2012

We never learn do we? I was involved with "the Man who Jumped' which was clear last night. We know what happens to these innocent people but still we keep right on doing it.
Marilyn Shepherd | 25 January 2012

Thank you for posting the video of the wonderful art exhibition. Sad though, that that art work had to be done in a prison. How much suffering we are all responsible for!
Janet | 26 January 2012

Although after the Bishop Morris affair the church does not score well on social justice, I am surprised that Ahmed, after visiting Pakistan, can be inspired by social justice in Islam!!
Fr. Noel Fitzsimons | 26 January 2012

“Social justice” is one of the words frequently used by brigades of self appointed moral warriors. I am sure the number of people able to define the length of a sting is the same as the number of people able to define “social justice”. Does social justice mean that a hard working people have to pay for people unwilling to work? Does social justice mean that all people get a fair remuneration for their efforts? Is it really social justice that so called self funded retirees are getting less pensions then somebody who did not save? Is it social justice that thousands of so called not for profit organisations don’t have to pay taxes? Is it social justice if CEO’s of companies earn Millions of Dollars a year whilst their companies make a loss? I suggest next time somebody is going to use the well trodden slogan” social justice”, they provide a valid definition.
Beat Odermatt | 26 January 2012

Congratulations to Adfar Ahmed for sharing his gifts with the refugees, through his generosity of spirit you have obviously opened up a wonderful pathway of hope for people who live without the dignity of their freedom. I wonder if the ABC's Four Corners has done an episode to bring this creativity to the attention of a wider circle of Australians.
Trish Martin | 27 January 2012


Subscribe for more stories like this.

Free sign-up