The Refugee Art Project-Four years on…

 By Celeste Hawkins

Australia is the only country in the world where there is no end date for refugee detainees.

Pause and think about that for a moment.

One can only imagine the traumatic experience these individuals have faced in their country of origin. Added to that, the heightened stress in boarding an unknown vessel and sailing in perilous conditions. Then finally, to arrive in a ‘processing centre’ or ‘detention centre'; where they are left with no certainty and locked away with no end in sight. There have been numerous reports in the media of the degrading conditions that these detainees must endure whilst in these places. The news of our treatment of asylum seekers has also been made known to the International Community and Human Rights organisations. Thankfully, some detainees have had the opportunity to express their feelings and emotional states through their art making; using whatever means they can find to do so.

“Art can do lots of things. It is a vehicle for self development, for personal expression and for the creation of inner worlds.” 

These are the carefully chosen words of Safdar Ahmed, founder of the Refugee Art Project. Set up by a collective of Artists and fellow Academics, the project is now in its fourth year. Safdar kindly updated me on the work that has been occurring with the project and a bit of background as to how and why he got it started.

jafari fire drawing

Murtaza Ali Jafari, ‘The Fire’, pen and ink on paper, 29 x 41 cm.

What is your own personal experience or reason for being concerned about the plight of asylum seekers?

I have no personal experience of exile, although my family on dad’s side are Indian Muslims who are discriminated against in their own country, so in that context I feel some empathy for scapegoated and marginalised minorities. The bulk of my concern about the plight of asylum seekers stems from not wanting to see our government indulge in abusive and sadistic policies that are explicitly designed to punish refugees and destroy their lives.

You have a Bachelor of Fine Arts and are a University Lecturer. In your Ted talk you discuss art as being your ‘refuge’, especially as a teen. Was this the catalyst to get this project happening?

I think my own experiences of depression and recovery have led me to believe that art can help people to express their difficulties and perhaps even understand them. On a less personal note, a catalyst behind the formation of Refugee Art Project is that many asylum seekers and refugees (particularly those whose cases are in process) do not have a public voice. If they are in detention they are directly censored and kept hidden from the media. If they live in community detention they are often too afraid to express themselves politically in case the Department of Immigration punishes them for it and throws them back into detention. In this context, it seems important to facilitate the art and self-expression of asylum seekers and refugees, which is what our organisation aims to do.

the fence low

Murtaza Ali Jafari, ‘The Fence’, ink and watercolour on paper, 41 x 29 cm.

Can you recall the particular moment or time when you thought about creating the zine project? Did it occur much longer after the art workshops?

Because zines have always been a way for underground communities to define themselves, and to produce their own culture and media—away from hegemonic political and social discourses—they seemed the best format in which to present the amazing artworks that refugees in detention were making. I think the idea for making the zines arose in response to the amazing quantity of black and white drawings refugees produced, which were too delicate and large in number to exhibit. By presenting their art, writing, poetry and occasional interviews, the zines are able to both validate the diverse voices of refugees and to hopefully convey those voices to the Australian public.

What was the initial reaction of the refugee community both inside and outside Villawood?

The reaction amongst refugees towards our zines has been very positive. Even people in detention who aren’t directly involved in our project have read them with interest and discussed them, which is nice to see.

What has been your reaction from the Australian Community?

The reaction from ordinary Australians has been interesting. I think for many readers the zines present an opportunity to hear directly from refugees, which most have never experienced. They also force the reader to see refugees in a new way—as complex human beings who cannot be viewed only through the prism of their persecution and suffering, which is how they are commonly represented in the media and amongst refugee advocates. Hopefully our zines give people a small insight into the former lives, hopes, aspirations, humour, whimsy, sadness, and just the daunting scope of intense, complex and messy emotions that refugees in and out of detention experience.

Hadi dweb

Hadi, ‘The door’, watercolour on paper, 21 x 29 cm.

How about the International Community?

So far there’s been a strong interest from refugee support organisations and zine distributors and libraries in places like the Netherlands, Germany, the US and elsewhere. It’s heartening to create solidarity with other refugee rights organisations and the zines no doubt play a role in showing what the situation of asylum seekers in Australia is like.

Can you discuss one particular case study or individual where they have clearly benefited from their art-making journey?

We have a few zines that contain the work of individuals including a beautiful issue by Murtaza Ali Jafari. Murtaza is a Hazara refugee from Afghanistan who we have known and built a solid friendship with over many years. The zine shows his earliest drawings, which he made in the Villawood detention centre, where he was locked up for over two years. It charts his artistic growth, as his style became progressively more graphic and intense. He says in the zine that art helped him cope with the stress of living in detention and gave him something to feel proud of. His work no doubt refracts the difficulties he experienced at Villawood, but overall I think it’s an amazing testament to his courage and strength.

You are not for profit organisation. Apart from the sales of artworks, where do you obtain the majority of your funding? What areas have the profits of sales been most helpful?

Because we are a not for profit organisation, we rely for our survival on donations, the occasional support of ethical institutions and the generosity of galleries who will not charge a commission on our shows. We are lucky to have a studio in north Parramatta which is made available through PopUp Parramatta and Parramatta council. From the sale of refugee artworks in our exhibitions, all proceeds go straight back to the refugee artists, to support themselves and their families. We’ve organised a few fundraising events to pay for art materials and to keep our classes going, although the zines are not a fundraising instrument. Because we want them to be affordable, our zines pay back their own printing and distribution and that’s about it.


Mohammad, ‘Misery’, pencil on paper, 21 x 29 cm

You said during your Ted Talk that after the first exhibition turn out in 2011, that it had  ‘built a bridge between the people in detention and people in the community’. Has that bridge become stronger over time?

Yes I hope so. I think our exhibitions have fostered greater connections between refugees in detention and people in the general community. Certainly our art workshops in Parramatta have helped to smooth the transition of refugees into the community once they are released from detention. In our workshops, exhibitions and other public events we aim to facilitate the empowerment, belonging and social inclusion of refugees.

Bashir low

Bashir Ahmed, ‘Then and Now’, pen and ink on paper, 21 x 29 cm.

How have the sales been for the zines? Which social platform have you found most successful for getting them out to the public?

We’ve been able to sell our zines through the lovely people at the Take care zine distro here in Sydney and the Sticky Institute in Melbourne. Facebook and Twitter have been the best networking platforms for promoting our zines, and our project more generally.

How is the new documentary coming along?

The Thomas project is very exciting! We are putting the finishing touches on a short interview documentary that was directed and produced by the talented filmmaker, Agnieszka Switala. Thomas Wales is a traditional landowner and spokesperson for the Thanakwith people in Far North Queensland. He worked as a service provider in the remote Sherger detention centre, where he developed a strong compassion and empathy for refugees. I think it’s rare to hear the insights of a first Australian who has experience of working and consolidating relationships with refugees in detention. He also relates the demonisation of refugees in Australian society with the marginalisation and discrimination that indigenous people face in this country, so his perspective is very interesting on that point.

What is the best way for people to help?

People can help us by making a financial donation to our organisation, which helps to pay for art materials and keep our workshops going. I think the zines are an excellent educational resource so it’s also a good idea to pitch them as worthy purchases for your local school or library.

Art News-A major Aquisition

News from Flinders Lane Gallery


Flinders Lane Gallery represented artist Josh Robbins has recently completed his most ambitious painting to date. Measuring 200 x 800cm and comprised of eight panels, Roost invites the viewer to enter into a surreal and fantastical world where time stops, birds flock, tree branches meander and respite is offered from the busy world that surrounds.

Roost 2014

Josh Robbins, Roost 2014, oil and mixed media on linen, 200 x 800cm.


Australian lawfirm Holding Redlich have acquired this significant work for their permanent collection, to be displayed in their Bourke Street office reception area in Melbourne. The artwork was officially unveiled by Holding Redlich’s Chris Lovell & artist Josh Robbins on the morning of Tuesday 23rd December, with the firm’s staff and media sources.



Josh Robbins Roost 2014 (detail, panel 1) oil and mixed media on linen 200 x 800 cm



The artwork will be generously returned to the gallery in May for Robbins’s upcoming major solo exhibition. Roost will be showcased alongside a new body of work from the 5th – 23 May 2015 and we are excited to once again be surrounded by his beautiful, flamboyant birds.



As always with Robbins’s practice, these are not your common garden variety of sparrow or pigeon but rather the result of a special sort of imaginary natural selection. Full of daring individuality, they are transformational shape-shifters, each fashioned according to the artist’s own desire for beauty and aesthetic pleasure.

Roost panel 2

Josh Robbins Roost 2014 (detail: panel 2) oil and mixed media on linen 200 x 800 cm

Artwork in holding area

Above: The artwork in situ at the Holding Redlich reception area in Bourke Street, Melbourne.


Roost panel 8

Josh Robbins Roost 2014 (detail: panel 8) oil and mixed media on linen 200 x 800 cm

137 Flinders Lane, Melbourne VIC
Tues – Fri 11am to 6pm, Sat 11am to 5pm (except at 3pm on the last Saturday of each exhibition.), (03) 9654 3332

The Island bird

Kids day out at the NGV…


By Celeste Hawkins

Yesterday I took my son and his friend along to the NGV International which has kind of transformed into a Children’s Wonderland with interactive art abound.  Climbing, pasting, drawing, crawling and swinging were just a few of the ‘ing’ related verbs occurring in this giant hive of activity. The activities also stretched outside and there were still eager partcipants despite the heat!

But back in the cool of the NGV the boys were very impressed with the Ernesto Neto’s, ‘The Island Bird’ and David Shrigley’s, ‘Lady taking a poop’.

Of course.

Golden mirror carousel


Below: Works by David Shrigley-Life and Life Drawing until March 15

Lady taking a poop

David Shrigley, Lady taking a poop, 2013

David Shrigley 3 David Shrigley 4

Workshop David Shrigley

The boys looking at animation




Feltmakers Art. 2013 Convergence

Play-Pose-Post…The art of Sarah Louise Ricketts

Sarah in her studio

Sarah in her studio

By Celeste Hawkins

At the rear of a majestic inner city terrace is the highly organized working studio of mixed media and fibre artist Sarah Louise Ricketts. A table displays the varied sculptural works created from felt, silicone and Monster clay, (as I am soon to discover). With many years in computing prior to launching herself solely as a practicing artist and teacher, the 3D printer present in the space seems a logical addition to her practice. “I wouldn’t say I have a mathematical brain, but it’s definitely a logical one. I can do things step by step rather well”,she says.

Sarah talks me through the process of how she came to make the moulds for the ‘Tetrapods’ that set the tone for her up-coming exhibition; “Play-Pose-Post”. She explains that Tetrapods are an engineering marvel used to create breakwaters and even new land, such as The Palm Hotel in Dubai.

How did you form the shape?

A model was made of the single Tetrapod ‘foot’, from wire and aluminum foil, covered with plasticine. The form was then cast using silicone to produce the mould.

What is it exactly that inspired you to make them? Is it because it is a functional object (as used in Dubai) or more about the elements of shape and form?

The pieces were made as part of an exhibition called ‘Feltportation’. Whilst reflecting on the concept of transportation, I tried to recall times when I had been delighted by the sight of something (a transportation of delight). Seeing Tetrapods being cast and used whilst we were living in Dubai was such an instant. The work flowed from that point.


Tetrapods. The small red ones created by the 3D printer.

Another thought came from the same source: that for children, the transportation of delight is often a toy. The idea of an “art toy for adults” was born. The two ideas seem to mesh together rather well.

Your background is in computing, how has that influenced your work? Is the 3D printer a large part of that influence?

3D printer

The 3D Printer!

I have always wanted to include my digital skillset in my art. This proved rather difficult when working with the oldest method of making textile, i.e. felt! However, with the advent of 3D printing, I will be able to produce a greater range of shapes and moulds to use as bases for soft sculpture.

When did you start working with felt and why? Is nunofelt your predominate material? What other textiles have you worked with and do you mix with the felt’?

I became entranced with the colour-blending painterly qualities of felt in the last year of art training. When the wool fleece is combined with a woven matrix, a beautiful, drape able fabric is produced, called ‘nunofelt’. For much of the past 12 years, I have worked with nunofelt, although a few years ago I began to go over to what I call the ‘dark side’: working in freestanding 3D forms, using hand-made felt, largely without the fabric matrix.

Woman sculpture

A work using Monster Clay influenced by a prehistoric sculpture

You said that you suppressed the art making side of yourself for a long time. Did you make things as a young person?

I stopped trying to make art in my twenties. Nonetheless, I have never not made things, but sublimated the impulse into various forms of craft and handiwork, renovating houses and so on, for a large part of my adult life. I began drawing so young that I cannot remember starting. My father, an architectural draughtsman at that stage, brought home plans and I would paint them with watercolours for him. I would have been about seven.

You use a variety of materials to create your sculptural works. How did that evolve?

The sculptural work, as with a lot of what I do, has a habit of evolving and moving into directions I am not anticipating. The desire to create reliably duplicated forms as a base for being covered with felt began with learning rudimentary sculpting techniques, which then led to learning casting and moulding with resin. Soon followed the desire to scale up and down on my computer rather than having to make a whole new thing; which led to 3D printing. I can now do nearly all of the above using that method! Along the way, I have investigated and tried out many different materials such as; Monster clay for modeling, various silicones for casting and two-part foams for creating forms. One of the joys of working creatively with materials is investigating them creatively.

 Would you say that the wall hangings you have made are a way of story telling or a ‘journey’ as each section is carefully hand stitched over time?

The wall pieces investigate stitching as a mark-making and a textural possibility. The daily stitching that you saw were essentially a documentary exercise, not so much of story, rather something more akin to the pens and paper that record inner tension or brain waves.

Wall hanging

One of Sarah’s wall-hangings in her hallway

What are the main motivations for people wanting to learn the art of felt making? What have been the experiences of some of your students?

Most people who become felt makers fall in love with the materiality of hand-made felt. Sometimes it is a general adoration, sometimes a specific desire to make certain something. Once the path is started the only way to learn is to periodically do a workshop or participate in a supportive group, such as the ‘Felting Frenzies’ run by the Victorian Felt makers Inc. Although I taught in the Diploma of Textile Arts program at TAFE (and staring this year, a similar private course at ‘Opendrawer’), students worked in whatever textile/fibre medium/method they wished. Sometimes this might be felt, sometimes not.

Sarah's cat

Sarah’s cat

What can people expect to experience at your exhibition?

Well, it will be a great way to experience some hand-made felt, especially for those who have not encountered it before. Many people think felt is just the machine-made squares of fibre kids cut up and make into finger puppets. It is actually a very sensitive medium, capable of transmitting the artist’s touch to the hand of the person holding the work.

Play – Pose – Post is an installation which carefully responds to the gallery space within which it sits: the Tetrapods upon their table, poised and ready, the whole environment supported by a soundscape created from the various ways in which people and children play. Within this supportive space, the viewer is invited to do that which is usually prohibited in the gallery setting: to touch and actively engage with the work. Arrange them and photograph the result. Post the image on the social media platform of choice. Identify the source for the image as #giantsjacks. Liberating. Play as the antidote to fear and restriction.

The digital side of this installation will then aggregate the image into the stack of images on display in the gallery, through seamless use of technology. This, in turn, becomes a new collaborative piece of work.

Feltmakers Art. 2013 Convergence

Feltmakers Art. 2013 Convergence

See Sarah’s website here at :

PLAY-POSE-POST is running from the 14-31st of January at the Rubicon ARI

Level 1/309 Queensberry Street

North Melbourne, Victoria






Mia 2

Melbourne Artists and their spaces

By Celeste Hawkins 

Unwinding (or at least trying to) for the Christmas season is here!

Below are glimpses in time captured in just a few of the spaces I have visited over the last few years.

Enjoy :) I’ll be back in a couple of weeks.

I am endeavouring to update my pinterest page too!

Pinning slowly but progressively!


Mia 2

Mia Salsjo-Work in Progress


Installation artist Georgie Seccull’s various tools


A slice of Paul Borg’s studio

Penelope Aitken

Artist Penelope Aitken at work