Refugee Art Project - Thirning Villa

Refugee Art Project is a non-profit, community art organisation which has facilitated art workshops for asylum seekers and refugees in the Villawood detention centre and for refugees living in the Western Sydney community since late 2010.

Participants in our organisation have come from such countries as Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, the Kurdish regions of the Middle East, Syria, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and other places. Two to three years is the average length of time that our participants have spent in indefinite detention, with some spending up to five or six years. The artworks produced within our workshops are curated and shown in public exhibitions, online and in self-published zines, to educate the broader Australian community and challenge the misconceptions that surround the refugee issue. Refugee Art Project aims to facilitate the self expression of asylum seekers and refugees, activating art in the struggle for social justice.

What is the current creative project you’re working on and what is the inspiration behind it?

At the moment a number of people in our Saturday workshops are creating new works for the 52 Artists 52 Actions initiative, in partnership with Artspace gallery, which will take place at the end of this month.

52 ARTISTS 52 ACTIONS is an ambitious, year-long project running from January 2018 to January 2019 highlighting artistic practice across Asia. The project will engage 52 artists and collectives to stage actions in unique, physical locations throughout the region and share them with global audiences on Instagram and online.

We are making a series of bold, colourful art-posters which we will print out, photograph and put on the gallery's Instagram account for the last week of August. This is a chance to create some really memorable images that address the refugee experience from very different and sometimes unexpected angles.

What drives your creativity?

I think it's a combination of the lovely friendships and collaborations that characterise our group. The studio is a space to build up a sense of community, friendship and trust, and the art we produce is a consequence of that. I think we share an optimistic faith in the power of art to inspire, challenge, educate people, and hopefully put some truth out into the world.

What artists/others have most inspired or influenced you and why?

I am inspired by other community art organisations who have done great things to amplify the voices of marginalised groups. An amazing organisation is the World Comics Network in India, which holds workshops with low caste groups, tribal people, villagers and other excluded communities, using grassroots comics to enhance their agency and advocate for them. This org strongly inspired our comic workshops in the Villawood detention centre and the zines we have published.

What messages are you aiming to communicate through your work? 

It's important that refugees are able to communicate whatever they wish to the Australian community in light of the cruel policies, mean stereotypes and misinformation that our government hurls against them. The works produced in our organisation are very diverse which I think reflects the richness, depth and complexity of people's experiences. The art is inspiring, but it cannot be boiled down to a single theme or reduced to any one category.

What is your favourite place in the inner west to work or wind down?

Without question our studio in Thirning Villa has become our favourite place to spend time, unwind, make a cup of tea, cook delicious curries, make art and relax together. Refugees in the community live on short term visas and have little access to resources or emotional support, making a centre such as Thirning Villa crucial to their wellbeing — a place to foster a sense of community and self-expression.

Another favourite is the New Moon gallery and workshop space in Lewisham. It's run by lovely people and we are partnering with them for a number of zine and film related events this year.

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Page last updated: 24 Oct 2023