By Madeline Newling

Elyas Alavi, "Mohammad Jan", 2016-17. Video with sound 2:25 mins 2016-17. Photo credit: David Lawrey
Elyas Alavi, “Mohammad Jan”, 2016-17. Video with sound 2:25 mins 2016-17. Photo credit: David Lawrey

Despite being fed images and stories of refugee crises from across the world, the charting of the trauma, rejection and loss inherent in displacement has largely been obscured and silenced. The Invisible, consisting of works by refugee artists and curated by refugee journalist and photographer Abdul Karim Hekmat, offers glimpses of these all-too-often overlooked refugee experiences.

Drawn directly from his witnessing of a fatal bomb blast in Kabul which killed 90 Hazara protestors, Elyas Alavi’s works reveal the confusion and injustice in the aftermath of violent persecution. In the film installation Mohammad Jan (2016-17), a family who lost their son to the protest recount the administrative process of recovering his body. Alavi uses rugs and floor cushions before a television to position the viewer in a shared space with the subject. This inviting setting extends the recorded Mise-en-scène into the gallery itself, juxtaposing the cognitive divide that so often distances the suffering of those in far away and unfamiliar places. Fading Faces (2017), a portrait series on glass depicting Hazara protestors, wrestles with notions of human fragility, splitting the living colour of each painted face from its stark outlines in shadow on the wall. Representing faces on glass highlights the vulnerability of a life in persecution, its three dimensionality also hinting at Western ignorance – the shadows of these faces, proof of substance and presence, disappear when their stories are kept in the dark.

Avan Anwar magnifies the loss of cultural identity in Dancing Letters and Displacement (2016), in which Persian poetry is scrunched up and strewn on the gallery floor. The installation is a physical representation of the links between language and sense of self, and the ramifications of their rupture. The preciousness of a name, this most basic expression–and possession–of identity, is made profoundly clear in Rushdi Anwar’s The Notion of Place and Displacement (2017). Anwar provides a window into the nature of fractured identity through the reconstruction of a UNHCR tent covered in the autographs of children. There is resistance in these signatures – resistance against the processes which redefine and reduce displaced persons into numbers, instead codifying them by status and circumstance.

The potential dangers and damages of seeking asylum in Australia are embodied in Unprotected (2017), Rushdi Anwar’s series of battered photographs, printed onto board and sent as ‘postcards’ from Kurdistan to Melbourne. They bear the physical scars of transit, mere echoes of the human experience of transnational movement. Meanwhile, Kadim Ali’s Untitled (from The Arrivals series, 2016) illustrates the systematic demonisation of asylum seekers in Australia’s political rhetoric. Ali’s practices in miniature and mural painting meet in this sinuous portrayal of an overcrowded vessel on turbulent seas. It begs the question: who is more monstrous, the demons aboard in life jackets, or the beasts waiting to receive them in the waters? The hardship lying ahead for such ‘boat people’ can be found in curator Abdul Karim Hekmat’s video series Nauru Refugee Voices (2017), which reveals the dehumanizing effects of Australia’s disturbing policies of offshore detention that keep the refugees in its care out of sight.

From the violence and insecurity of warfare and ethnic persecution, through to the stress of statelessness, cultural upheaval and the hostility a new ‘home’ country, The Invisible is a powerfully illuminating reminder of the extent that refugee experiences are hidden, providing worthwhile insight for those of us who have never faced such enduring trauma and loss.


Madeline Newling is an undergraduate student at UTS, in her 5th year of Writing and Cultural Studies and International Studies in the Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences. Madeline has been working in and around galleries and social history museums in Australia and Europe since 2011 and has an interest in the creative industries’ potential for social engagement. 


Read more about the UTS Gallery Student Writing Program, including the work of all our 2017 writers, here.