Provocative posters question detention policy
The works were done secretly by asylum seekers and smuggled out of detention centres in a bid to tell stories authorities want to remain hidden.
It’s nightfall, in an alleyway off Adelaide’s trendy Rundle Street, and a message from behind bars finds freedom on a brick wall.
A determined young man armed with a bucket of adhesive paste and a broom is making a political statement.
Peter Drew is mounting pictures and stories from asylum seekers in laneways and on construction hoardings in the heart of the city.
Some of the works have had short lifespans, removed by the city council, despite the mayor’s professed support for pop-up art and community vibrancy.
Mr Drew knows his posters are not strictly legal, but he argues it is less criminal than the Federal Government’s immigration policies.
“I need to get them up as quickly as possible, because there’s no guarantee that they’re going to last forever. But, really, that’s the only way that a project like this could happen. If I went around to property owners and asked for everyone’s permission and tried to explain to them, it just wouldn’t happen. This way, it’s easier to sort of ask for forgiveness, rather than to ask for permission.”
The artists took a bigger risk.
That is, the asylum seekers in detention centres who were smuggled the materials.
“I gave them sketchbooks, and then came back a second time when they had done their sketches, and then I was able to take the books out of detention. So it was clandestine. There isn’t a process by which people in detention can express themselves and communicate to the wider public, so that was a core part of the idea.”
Film-maker Frazer Dempsey is filming the poster process for a documentary to share the art with the world.
And he is also doing it so its captive creators can see their works out in the world.
“The people in detention centres aren’t free to see the artwork, so I’m hoping that this documentary will give them a chance to see it.”
By day, the works are making people stop, look and think.
One of the most eye-catching is a portrait of a weeping woman.
Her story of fleeing Afghanistan and then Pakistan sits at one of Adelaide’s busiest intersections on the corner of King William and Hindley Streets.
It has been produced by her son, Ali Reza Mohammed, who has been released from detention and is on a bridging visa as he reflects on Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“There is, like, no freedom for no-one. Like, it’s really hard to live there. There is war, very big war. Every single day, they’re killing Hazaras, Shia Muslims. And this is the picture of my mum, which is (about) my mum’s been through a lot in Afghanistan and Pakistan. So that’s why it’s my memory. I draw this picture to show the people of the world, you know, how difficult life is.”
Mr Mohammed survived a stormy journey on a tiny boat filled with 123 people, then a stint on Christmas Island.
All of it, he says, was better than his old life.
“I think detention is not really a bad place. You know, there is good opportunity, too. Like, if you compare it to Afghanistan and Pakistan, it’s alright.”
The young Hazara man hopes his work does not jeopardise his visa.
He says his storytelling is a show of appreciation for the Australia he loves for offering him safety.
“I just knew that, if I go somewhere that there’s no war, no killing, no fighting, like, I will have a safe life. Just for me, it was important to have a safe life. At my age, people don’t want to die, don’t want to be killed. I have seen a lot in Pakistan. So many children, so many families, women and men, they’ve all been killed by bomb blasts, by targeted killing, by gun. Every single day, they’re targeting Hazara people in Pakistan, Quetta. I just came because I can’t stay there. People can kill easily and anytime.”
Artist Peter Drew says Mr Mohammed’s involvement in the project typifies the bravery shown by asylum seekers.
“The thing that struck me those most, and what I really didn’t anticipate, is just the courage and sacrifice that people go through in order to get here. And the reason that struck me is because courage and sacrifice are meant to be Australian values. We sort of have mythology of the Anzacs and with our own white settlement that had a lot of do with courage and sacrifice. Why don’t we acknowledge and honour the courage and sacrifice of people who are coming here now?”
Seeing that courage galvanised his determination to give voice to the voiceless.
“Where were the people who it’s actually affecting? We can’t talk to them. We can’t see them. They’re deliberately kept hidden. When I started sort of going to detention centres, the amount of security … You can’t take photographs. Why? Why can’t you? Why isn’t it open?”
The posters show mothers in mourning, children playing behind razor wire, a tree inside a detention centre with stylised branches in the shape of people.
It is a tree that detention authorities cut down.
One of the most startling is a poster designed by Peter Drew himself, featuring the slogan “Stop the Boats.”
He is not agreeing with government policy but, instead, ridiculing it.
The boat in question is pictured as an old convict transporter, “stopping the boats” a reference to European settlement.
“During the election, the phrase was “Stop the boats,” and I just think that phrase is completely absurd. I wanted to turn it on its head. I wanted to subvert it so that people could see how absurd it was, how a colonial population who came here by boats a couple of hundred years ago, all of a sudden, are just telling people who come by boats that they can’t.”
Mr Drew acknowleges the paste and paper will not survive the elements long.
But the heartfelt stories they carry might.
“It’s ephemeral. It’s going to come down with the weather. It’s just there to think about for a while. You know, it’s not going to hurt anybody.”