In celebration of Refugee Week, Active Moreland attended the Moreland Council art initiative ‘Where have we come to?’ In partnership with asylum seekers, people from refugee backgrounds, local organisations and the broader community; the event highlighted the many challenges faced by asylum seekers and refugees, whilst celebrating their contributions to the Moreland community and beyond.
Bill Nicholson, a Wurundjeri elder, opened the evening with a stunning Welcome to country. Awarded the Churchill Scholarship in 2015, Bill has travelled the world promoting cross cultural relations, and learning about the different approaches and programs used by other First Nation people around the globe. Bill touched on the importance of language, delivering his ‘Welcome’ in the traditional Wurundjeri language. He went on to conclude that before colonisation ‘the communication was different. We passed on our stories through art as a cultural responsibility’.
Shortly after, Moreland patrons were entertained by the brilliant African Star Dance and Drumming. The group provide an authentic West African cultural experience, and consisted of members Shabba, Kofi, and Sackey- all from Ghana. The high energy performance encapsulated the group’s passion for African culture and tradition. Before kicking off the discussions from guest speakers, Sarah Lane, a staff member from the Asylum Seeker Welcome Centre in Brunswick, offered a service provider’s perspective. “I have seen the calm and mindfulness of art that has lifted some refugees from the jaws of depression. The power of art is transformative”. This sentiment was echoed and explored throughout the entire evening by numerous guest speakers.
First off was Miream Salameh. A Syrian-Australian visual artist, Miream shared with the room her gripping personal story. Due to her fearless involvement in anti-government activism, including the creation and distribution of ‘The Justice’ - a magazine that contained essays documenting Assad’s human rights abuses, Miream was forced to flee her home city of Homs after regime forces made threats of rape, arrest and murder against her. They looted her workspace, destroyed majority of her artwork, and murdered her mentor- the prolific Syrian sculptor, Wael Kasstoun. “He taught me everything I know,” said Miream, as emotion clutched her speech. “He was like a father to me. His only crime was refusing to paint something that supported the Syrian regime”. Despite everything Miream has suffered, she grows more and more committed to resisting as time elapses. “This regime is especially brutal for people who hold paint brushes and cameras. Through my art, I want to give a voice to the people who are silenced, and in detention. It is my duty to tell the world about it”.
Julian Burnside, a Human Rights Lawyer and one of Australia’s leading advocates for Asylum Seekers and Refugees, along with Arnold Zable; an acclaimed author, novelist and human rights advocate, then sat down in conversation. “Miream encapsulates both the power and preciousness of art,” said Arnold, after thanking her for sharing her story. Julian then expanded on this sentiment, by making reference to Pablo Picasso’s Guernica: “And when Colin Powell announced the Iraq invasion, United Nations officials put a blue curtain over a tapestry reproduction of the art piece they had hanging in the room”. This painting depicts the horrific nightmare scene of innocent people suffering from a bomb dropped on the Spanish city of Guernica, by the Nazi regime and fascist Italian war planes. Julian then went on to point more present examples - a graffiti piece by artist Banksy, sprayed on the wall of a refugee camp in Calais, France. “It’s of Steve Jobs - who of course, is the son of a Syrian migrant, from the hometown of Homs like our previous speaker Miream. And Mehdi - a man of dwarfism, who is currently on Manus Island. A comedian and performer from Iran, he performed for the other detainees after a man died on Manus Island. Their spirits lifted and for a moment they forgot where they were”.
Following this insightful conversation, was the final guest speaker - Melbourne based artist, Rushdi Anwar. Originally from Kurdistan, Rushdi’s installations, sculptures, paintings, and video works explore the socio-political issues of the Middle East. His work often references the social and political unrest of his home country. On a recent trip back to Kurdistan for an art project, Rushdi visited 7 different Refugee camps across the country, and documented the way people live there. “Camps are communities”, explained Rushdi, as footage of children playing took the screen. “These children and their families- they are some of the many victims of terrorism”. One project Rushdi completed during his time in Kurdistan, involved an art class. “Everybody wrote their names on the blank walls. We take these people’s identities from them- they just collectively become ‘refugees’. The tents these children live in, they are all the same on the outside. But they are all so different on the inside”.
“An author is an authority on something. The greatest authority on seeking asylum, is an asylum seeker” concluded Arnold. “Art has the power of smuggling uncomfortable ideas into complacent minds”, added Julian. The ‘Where have we come to?’ Moreland Council art initiative aimed to explore contemporary Australian stories and experiences from refugees, internally displaced communities, post war migrations and early colonisation narratives. What it did, was enrich and empower the minds and hearts of the room.