Making the refugee story visible

3 October 2017

Abdul Hekmat posing

Photo: Abdul Hekmat

Communications graduate Abdul Karim Hekmat is bringing visual depictions of the stories of refugees into sharp focus at an exhibition at UTS Gallery this October.

Abdul Karim Hekmat is a creative writer, artist, photographer and journalist who fled Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and came to Australia in 2001 – spending five months in detention – when he was only twenty years old.

He graduated from UTS with a Bachelor of Arts in Communications and Social Inquiry (Hons) (2008) after receiving a scholarship while on a Temporary Protection Visa, and has since used his education and personal refugee experience to highlight the experiences of other refugees.

"My primary concern is how to raise the voices of refugees and how to help other people,” he says.

Hekmat is also the curator of, and contributor to, The Invisible, a new exhibition at the UTS Gallery from 3 October, which draws together artworks from the personal experiences of fellow refugees.

"Trauma exists in all the art works. It’s a deep wound that we carry."

The Invisible features work by Hekmat and fellow artists and former refugees Khadim Ali, Elyas Alavi, Avan Anwar and Rushdi Anwar, who have all drawn on their own refugee backgrounds to create evocative and powerful works in painting, video, sculpture, installation and photography.

"We all reflected on our own personal experiences of displacement to produce our artwork,” says Hekmat.

The Invisible responds to the lack of visual representation of refugees in Australia.

“Refugees are visually absent. The most common image of refugees is the silhouettes against the fence. There’s not much else in the public consciousness. Refugees and visual depictions of refugees are hidden from the public.”

“My own work explores being a refugee in Australia on a bridging visa. It is an audio visual piece based around recordings of the voices of people in Nauru, talking about their experiences. It’s kind of a testament from refugees.”

Avan Anwar explores language in her sculpture which is a manipulation of 19th century texts from Kurdish poet Nali. 

“Avan’s work is about the displacement of language from one place to another – losing the language, and being cut off from the culture and traditions, literature and poetry. Coming from different backgrounds, we all understood how traumatic it was to lose our language in the movements of being a displaced person.”

Rushdi Anwar’s piece relates to his return to his homeland of Kurdistan and the time he spent in Iraqi refugee camps. 

“Rushdi spent four months in a camp with people displaced by ISIS. He worked with local artists and children to recreate a UNHCR family tent, showing the daily life of people in the camp.”

“He is also exploring a piece about postcards. With postcards, when you send them, they cross over five or six different countries before they get to their destination, and you have to send them without the protection of an envelope. So when they cross each country, the postcard gets a new stamp. There can be as many as five or six stamps on the postcard when it arrives in Australia, and often the postcard is scratched. It’s kind of a metaphor for refugees crossing through one country to another, and being bruised and wounded in the process of being displaced.”

Khadim Ali’s miniature paintings highlight the persecution and dehumanisation of people seeking asylum, mixed with themes around the demonization of refugees.

“Kadim’s work explores the rhetoric that you hear about refugees that depicts them more like demons than people.”

Elyas Alavi’s glass portraits offer possible stories from people who never lived to tell their own.

“Elyas Alavi returned to Afghanistan in 2016 and was in Kabul at a protest. ISIS set off a bomb that killed 90 Hazara people. He witnessed and survived it, and his art became about processing this trauma. Attacks on Hazar and Kurdish people happen all the time over there, and it’s not commonly known here.”

“Trauma exists in all the art works. It’s a deep wound that we carry.”

Hekmat has also written for many of Australia’s major media outlets about refugee settlement and policy, and provided human narratives to the hidden and demonised refugee story.

In 2012, he was awarded UTS Alumni Community Award and the following year was recognised as a Refugee Ambassador. He has also been a board member of Refugee Council of Australia and is continuing his education with UTS as a PhD candidate, “exploring the voices of refugees through writing and art”.

Hekmat's will to survive his experiences, pursue an education and help others were key motivators from an early age.

“By the time I came to Australia, I was beyond the threat of the Taliban, true, but I was extremely sad to be so far from home and alone. I always had a thirst for education, for my entire life. I did everything I could to go to university in Australia,” he says.

“I came to UTS because I was one of the recipients of the 2004 UTS TPV (Temporary Protection Visa) scholarship. This gave me the opportunity to go to university. I studied Social Inquiry and I did my electives in creative writing because I have stories to tell through writing, through art, photography and video.”

Hekmat feels a deep sense of responsibility to remind Australia of the human face of the refugee experience.

“Refugee stories are many. And they are suppressed and silenced. I spend a lot of time with the subjects of the stories I write. I think of them first, rather than the story itself. I become friends with them. I am more interested in them as a person. This rapport is really important because they can trust you and you can tell a rich story.”

He believes in the powerful contribution that art can make to changing perceptions of refugees.

“I think that art or literature is something that could break the barrier – to break through the wall of ignorance that stigmatises and marginalises refugees. We can’t ignore the political message, we’re up front about it, but art is the medium to communicate the story.”

He also believes that displaced people in Australia cannot rely on others to either understand or change their perceptions or actions towards refugees.

“When you think about the situation for any minority groups and their rights, the change comes from them not from others. So I think refugees have to take action, to make a difference to their lives and change perceptions.”

Hekmat credits his education for putting him on the path he is on now. He urges current students and new graduates to stay alert to every opportunity to expand their knowledge of the world and the skills they could develop to make a positive impact.

“You need to relate to other people’s suffering and empathise with them as human beings. It doesn’t matter what you study. Education should be more than getting a career to just make money. Use your education to learn about and help other people."

"Look for ways to make other people’s lives better.”