Shepparton Art Gallery – April 2006

I gave up my art practice, for four years, I decided my activism on behalf of refugees was the only pursuit of any value to me. It was an uncharacteristic choice as I’ve always been an obsessive maker of objects and images. Oddly, the subject of refugees brought me back to visual art but in an utterly altered way.

It started with an exhibition at Gabrielle Pizzi’s. I decided to paint 353 faces in the water, each representing one of the drowned asylum seekers of the SIEV-X disaster of 2001. Since then so many other paintings and sculptures about asylum seekers and their travails have followed. I have no other subject. Their narratives and to some extent their lives have transformed mine. I am attempting to both fictionalize and document at the same time, some of the stories of their lives and culture for their sakes and for mine.

Many of the families in Shepparton are people from the Hazara ethnic group, that my mother and I wrote to for sometimes up to 3½ years. I met some of them when I was researcher for a BBC production on the “Pacific Solution”. We spent three days there. I haven’t shed any of the connections I made with those detainees, and to see some of them settling happily, at last, into life in Shepparton still feels like a miracle.

Whilst they were in Nauru, I encouraged their needlework and doll-making, I was always moved and fascinated by the results. Hazara women sew in tiny geometric designs. Their skills are very impressive, and their mud houses were covered in the items of their handiwork and their weaving.

I’d like to embolden them a little, to alter the scale of it, and to change its context somewhat, will, I know help them to express their culture and art, and to feel valued, stimulated and extended. The exchange of ideas and techniques between sewers will be of an enormous benefit to the Hazara women who have so little status here.

I know that this project will allow us to make something very hybrid, something that is inventive and at the same time traditional. We’ll make the cushions and floor cloths of a typical Afghani meal but we’ll transform it, enlarge it, and make it about its new location – Shepparton.