In the land of the blind

Two months ago I received an invitation from Vicki Salisbury, Director of the Umbrella Studio in Townsville, to open the exhibition “Suspicious Suspension” by Tehran born artist Hesam Fetrati.

In the invitation Vicki said that the exhibition, opening 22 May, was the artist’s interpretation of the distress caused by the harmful and common global activity of displacement. Vicki went on to say that it was a powerful exhibition and an opportunity for me as an Amnesty International representative “to speak out and stir the (melting) pot regarding the issues of refugees”.

Hesam discusses his work at the Exhibition opening

I accepted the invitation and on the Friday morning before the opening went to the studio to meet Hesam and to be introduced to his work. We went across the road for a coffee and I found out more about Hesam. Hesam was born in Iran at the time of the Islamic Revolution in the late 70s. During his childhood he witnessed the horrifying effects of the 8 year long war that followed the invasion of Iran by Saddam Hussain’s forces from neighbouring Iraq. He subsequently became an artist and used cartoons to comment on what he saw happening around him.

In 2011, reaction from authorities to Hesam’s political cartoons resulted in him applying for a student visa to come to study in Brisbane. Hesam is currently finishing his PhD at Griffith University and he has permanent residence in Australia.

Following our coffee Hesam introduced me to the art work in Suspicious Suspension. This exhibition contains Hesam’s work from his first two years in Australia and also contains several pieces of more recent work. His works focus on the experience of refugees and asylum seekers making the hazardous journey to Australia by boat and the perceptions of them from the people and Government of Australia.


Screaming Fish

Hesam portrays refugees in several ways: as severed tree trunks, as fish and as suitcases. The severed tree trunks symbolise the displacement of refugees from their culture. I asked Hesam why the fish images have large teeth and look quite fearsome. Hesam replied that refugees are perceived by many Australians to be dangerous people.

Hope is the theme of a number of paintings in the exhibition. Hesam explained that hope sustains refugees on their often perilous journeys that in many cases go on for years and years. One of the cruel twists of the current Pacific solution introduced by Kevin Rudd is that asylum seekers arriving in Australia by boat are told that there is no hope that they will ever be allowed to settle in Australia. The devastating effects of this can be seen be seen in the incidents of self-harm that have occurred in the off shore detention centres in Manus Island and Nauru.

Blindness is another theme explored in a number of works in the exhibition. I immediately thought of current government policies that ensure that Australians are kept in the dark about the practices employed by the Navy as part of Operation Sovereign Borders. There are no images of people who are currently seeking to come to Australia by boat and no chance for us to see them as people and empathise with their plight.

Selfishness medallion

The final piece in Hesam’s exhibition is the Selfishness Medallion. Hesam designed this medallion for the immigrants and refugees who have arrived in Australia in the past 230 years and yet have no compassion for the current wave of refugees. We talked about Hesam’s desire to present this medallion to Tony Abbott, who is an immigrant to Australia, and one who has little empathy with more recent arrivals to Australia.

I talked with Hesam about his hopes for the exhibition. Hesam said that sales of his work would be welcome but his greatest desire is that people will look at his work and gain a greater understanding and empathy for the plight of refugees and asylum seekers. He said that if one person experienced a change in heart after viewing the exhibition then his work would be worth it.

Hesam’s exhibition will continue at Umbrella until the end of June and I would highly recommend it to anyone seeking to get a better understanding of the plight of asylum seekers and refugees.

No war

Postscript: “No war” – one of Hesam’s current works that examines the related themes of patriarchy and peace.


About peterhanley1

Peter Hanley has lived in North Queensland for more than 30 years. His interests include human rights, social justice, sustainability and community development. True North explores issues in these areas.
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