Australia's policy of detaining asylum seekers and refugees in remote high-security facilities has attracted a lot of attention. Earlier this year, the Australian Human Rights Commission reported that children in such centers suffer elevated rates of mental illness as well as physical and sexual abuse. Back in November, the United Nations Committee Against Torture slammed the policy, calling for an end to mandatory detention. But as visible as the issue is, not much is known about the specific experiences of the people inside.
Sydney artist and academic Safdar Ahmed has worked with the refugees at Villawood detention center since 2010 as part of the Refugee Art Project. In his time there he has become friends with the detainees and through the medium of art he has seen a side of them which is not often explored. In his upcoming webcomic, Villawood Safdar delves into what it is like for the refugees who live there.
Like Sam Wallman's powerful webcomic Serco, which was published last year by the Global Mail, Villawood documents the dehumanizing effects of immigration detention. But while Wallman's work told the story from the perspective of a detention center guard, Villawood places the reader firmly in the shoes of the detainees, with all the loneliness, hopelessness, and banality that entails.
VICE: Let's start by talking about the Refugee Art Project, which you helped start four years ago.
Safdar Ahmed: We give workshops to refugees and then use their artwork to hold public exhibitions. I think it's important because refugees don't have a public voice. In all of the discussion and debates that goes around refugee policy, people in detention are largely silent due to the restrictions the government places upon them.
In light of those restrictions, were there difficulties around creating the web comic?
I certainly wasn't going to advertise what I was working on. There was one day when I was trying to take my drawing in and show one of the people who is in the center to get their approval. One of the officers picked up my sketchbook and started looking closely at the pictures, which they don't usually do. She said, "You can't bring these into the center, they're political." So I took the drawings back and wasn't allowed to take them in that day. I think that reflects the environment detention creates. I couldn't even bring in a few simple drawings.
Can we talk about Ahmad Ali Jafari, who appears in one of the comics? How did his death impact upon you as an artist?
Ahmad was a participant in our workshop during his time at Villawood, which was about a year. I became good mates with him during this time. I think his death came as a terrible shock for everyone who knew him. It is the saddest part of the comic for me and one of the worst experiences of my life, given the fact that he died in detention and he wasn't treated very well when he died. As the comic shows he complained of chest pain and one of the officers who was on duty thought he was pretending so that he could get his own room. The officer laughed at Ahmad and mocked him as he died, which is what I have depicted in the comic. That was obviously a very hard pill to swallow, when someone you really care about is treated so awfully.
The comic features work by some of the refugees, why was this done?
I didn't want the comic to just be me speaking on the refugees' behalf. By putting in some of their work when it fit the narrative it was a good way to bring their own self-expression into the comic, which I think is important.
It's certainly affecting. What were your influences for the comic?
I guess Art Spiegelman and Robert Crumb are influences to my work. They belong to the tradition of underground comics, which is where the comic form is used to sometimes say very serious things and to convey strongly political or personal experiences. Often the creator is in the comics themselves so their personality is a big part of it. For Villawood that was good because I don't want to pretend it is a complete picture of the detention center. It is my perception of the detention center filtered through my lens and my understanding.
Of course this isn't the first comic from Australia revolving around detention. How do you view your work in comparison to the comics the Australian government have circulated?
That comic specifically targeted Afghan refugees in order to deter them from coming by boat. What was horrible about that comic was it didn't show a common refugee, it tried to depict the refugee as an economic migrant, which is to trivialize the real issue. That isn't the history of Afghan refugees at all. They aren't tired of working in a shitty job, they are threatened by the Taliban and anyone in their shoes would get up and leave and go to a different country too. That was propaganda of the worst kind. But for me I see comics as an extremely powerful medium with a strong satirical, democratic, and anti-authoritarian tradition behind them.
What do you think the reaction of the comic is going to be from an institutional point of view?
I haven't even thought about that. I hope there is some kind of acknowledgement that these are some of the experiences which are very widely shared. I'm not opening the lid on anything completely new here. This is what happens when you lock people up. Aside from the death of Ahmad Ali Jafari, a lot of the anecdotes are very small everyday things but I think when you add it all together, this is what it's like to have your freedom and autonomy taken away from you. That's what detention is.
Read "Villawood" by Safdar Ahmed here.
Follow Charlie on Twitter: @clbraith