Zines, Refugee Poetry and the Politics of Expression

On Sunday the 23rd of March, Gorman House hosted the second Canberra Zine Emporium, a celebration of the humble creativity and inventiveness enabled by small-scale publishing.

The ‘zine’ – from ‘magazine’ or ‘fanzine’ – is a reinvention of the tradition of self-publishing. Despite often being trivialised by established media, the zine, properly speaking, aims to create a public sphere for themes often thought of as ‘merely’ private or personal: from sex poetry, fanfiction, niche jokes through to unorthodox streams of identity and food politics.

However, of all the zines on display this weekend, it was those from the Refugee Art Project (RAP) that were most compelling because they raised questions concerning the very nature of public discourse and expression.

The Refugee Art Project was founded in 2010 by a group of artists and academics from Sydney University – in particular, Safdar Ahmed and Omid Tofighian. The group provides free art classes for the residents at the detention centres in Villawood (NSW) and Broadmeadows (Victoria) and has curated two acclaimed exhibitions: Fear + Hope (2011) at the Mori Gallery and Life in Limbo (2012) at the UTS Foyer Gallery.

The Refugee Art Project aims, firstly, to provide a form of therapy for the residents. The projects participants come from countries such as Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Iraq, Iran, Nigeria and Indonesia and many of them have suffered the traumas of persecution, war and violence. For them, art is not merely an escape from the drudgery and torment of life in detention, but a way of dealing with these experiences.

Murtaza Ali Jafari, a Afghan Hazara asylum seeker and the author of one of the zines, writes in brief bursts and collages of prose of the violence directed against he and his relatives while in Pakistan, thus highlighting one of the central paradoxes of trauma – namely, trauma is characterised by both the profound inability to communicate an experience as well as the necessity to do precisely that. The Refugee Art Project aims to give the residents a forum where they can express their grievances and be understood.

This relates to the wider, political aim of the project: “to give refugees a voice.” The project’s founder, Safdar Ahmed, declares that it is not merely a matter of “human rights” but also of the “human dignity” associated with having an intelligible voice in the public sphere.

Given the current state of the Australian media on the refugee question, Admed’s point could not be more pertinent. Despite the fact that the figure of the refugee occupies such a central place in the public debate about Australian identity, refugees rarely, if ever, have the opportunity to represent themselves. Rather, their voice is one that is always mediated by others in what is, at best, the monologue of the media about refugees, rather than a dialogue with them. Against this monotony, the Refugee Art Project aims to create a space in which refugees can speak for themselves. By doing so, it is hoped that they will gain the kind of political agency and empowerment that is otherwise denied to them.

However, this begs the question – what is it that refugees express given this space? More often than not, their art testifies to the impossibility of being understood, to the very limits of expression. Among the recurring motifs of Murtaza’s work is that which takes after Escher – hands that draw themselves, that conjure their own existence ex nihilo under the omnipresent gaze of detention. He depicts knots that loop themselves into many shapes – nooses, question marks, faces – as well as bared wire that lacerates the artist’s hand and fire that devours the precarious sparkings of a candle.

The work of these refugees resonates in an unexpected way with the twenty-two poems written by seventeen detainees of America’s most notorious detention facility – Guantánamo bay. While it is misleading to equate Villawood or Broadmeadows with Guantánamo, there is a resemblance at least in the way that these detainees, when given the space, choose to represent the very impossibility of representing themselves. The Poems from Guantánamo (2007), some of which were written with toothpaste and carved intoStyrofoam cups, speak to this contradiction. As Sami al Haj, a Sudanese reporter for Al Jezeera who was released without charge in 2008 wrote in one such poem:

I was humiliated in the shackles.

How can I now compose verses?

How can I now write?

After the shackles and the nights and the suffering and the tears,

How can I write poetry?

It is this question – how can I express myself? – that is the truly haunting message of the poetry and art of the detained. For even when they are given that precious space by projects as inspired, stirring and charitable as the Refugee Art Project, we must ask ourselves: can they heard and, still more, understood?

At the bottom on their zines: To find out more about Refugee Art Project, please find us on facebook or visit our website: therefugeeartproject.com. If you would like to contact us, please write to: refugeeartproject@gmail.com

Image by Alwy Fadhel