Fearful Australia – those who want to Stop The Boats, which is code for Keep Australia Just For Me And People Like Me – should take itself down to the State Library of Queensland this week. There’s an exhibition of works by artists with refugee backgrounds, and it’s worth seeing.
Saturday was the opening of Art Talks, and it was a happy one. Guest speakers spoke poetically, the Scattered People Choir sang, visitors munched on free tucker (ricepaper rolls; not a triangular Vegemite sandwich in sight – perhaps we have come some way since the xenophobic 1950s…) and conversations broke out between the artists and visitors. And that was the organisers’ intent – to get settled Australians and newer arrivals talking, appreciating our common humanity.
There are actually two sorts of works on display. There are the artworks themselves – painting, drawing, sculpture, ceramics, film, textiles – and the artists’ stories, told in film and words. Sometimes the artworks draw directly on the artists’ own experiences in their often horrendously difficult and drawn-out journeys here, though mostly they reflect memories and experiences of their original culture.
Some deal with contemporary issues, such as co-organiser Towfiq Alqudy’s installation about the Arab Spring.
The artists’ stories also talk about both their past experiences and their future hopes. Sometimes the events that drove them from their previous lives are described directly, as in Mary Anne Awasi’s story of being driven out of her hometown in the Sudan under threat of death; often they are just mentioned tangentially, leaving the visitor to read between the lines. Reading them, I’m asking myself: “How would I have acted in this situation? How can Australia not accept people who’ve got such magnificent courage and strength?”.
Many of the artists in the group had studied and/or practiced as artists in their birth countries, or are studying art here. Some had significant reputations in those countries, but here, they’re all having to re-fashion their careers. That’s where Art Talks comes in.
Art Talks is an initiative by Creative Conversations, started by Cindy Beumer to help artists with refugee backgrounds to pursue their creative goals and build links with the broader arts community. This exhibition is an important step for the group – a sort of ‘coming out’ – and deserves support from the wider community. See it if you can! It closes this Sunday the 11th November.