Q&A with Safdar Ahmed

A collage of images, including the suburban review Issue 19 cover, a textured orange rectangle, and a portrait of Safdar Ahmed. Safdar is looking straight down the barrel of the camera. He is wearing a blue beanie and a blue shirt, and has dark facial hair. His expression is very serious.

SAFDAR AHMED is a Sydney-based artist and creator of the Walkley Award-winning  documentary web-comic Villawood: Notes from an immigration  detention centre. He prefers the mediums of drawing and comics,  and is currently working on a graphic novel called Still Alive, to be  published by Twelve Panels Press next year.

Claire Albrecht, our Associate Editor and Submissions Manager, talks to Safdar Ahmed about his illustration in #19: Echo.

I’ve been thinking about the line your illustration works around: ‘The day will come when we claim what earth we’re heir.’ What do these words mean to you?

That was one of my favourite lines from Luke Patterson’s, ‘Three Koori Love Songs’. It takes the form of a conversation between the poet and a younger person, with sentiments of reassurance, consolation, and what it means to survive the colonial state. It ends on a powerful note of resistance, inspiring respect for the sovereignty and deeply enmeshed culture of Aboriginal communities whilst imagining a different historical present – the tantalising notion of a post-imperial Australia. My drawing focuses on the child because I think kids have such a deep capacity for awe and wonder, which is sort of what we need in the present, as a precursor for imagining alternative futures.

Your artwork evokes the unknown, and the moment of fear when we confront it. How do you see that unfolding in our current pandemic isolation?

For me the whole last year has been an encounter with the unknown, both in this current pandemic and the awful climate-change-inspired bushfires that ran through NSW this time last year. When Covid-19 first struck, I felt particularly vulnerable, as someone who lives with a chronic illness (Crohn’s Disease), for which I am immunosuppressed. I think we’re all living through a collective social trauma that is difficult to process, because it’s still unfolding and no one knows how it will play out. My optimistic side hopes the fear people experience will transmute into genuine reflection and promote a greater understanding of our interconnectedness, both at a microbial and at a structural-societal level. I hope the physical distance we endure now instructs us about more than just our obligations to public health. It should also bring home a need to address the policies and structures that leave people vulnerable in the first place. Without being too preachy about it (though I often am) this may be a good practice-run for the sacrifices we’ll need to make if the climate emergency is ever properly addressed.

Can you tell us a little about the Refugee Art Project?

Refugee Art Project is a not-for-profit community art organisation that I founded with some friends 10 years ago, and which I’m still deeply involved in. The group supports people of a refugee or asylum seeker background, many of whom were incarcerated in the Villawood Detention Centre over many years and who now live in Western Sydney on temporary visas. The primary aim of the org is to open up spaces for friendship and community building, with art, cultural events and creative projects providing a type of glue for that to happen. Over the years, the organisation has built a strong sense of community, and some of the artwork and collaborations to emerge from it have been deeply inspiring.