Top Australian artists slam government for confiscating refugee's art supplies

Farhad Bandesh and one of his artworks. Source: Supplied

A refugee being held in a Melbourne detention centre says his art supplies were taken with no explanation two months ago.

A group of Australia's leading artists has slammed the government for confiscating the art supplies of a refugee being held in an immigration detention facility in Melbourne.

The group - who all served at one point as an Australian Offical War Artist - have co-signed a letter demanding the government return the art supplies to Kurdish refugee and fellow artist Farhad Bandesh.

Mr Bandesh spent six years on Manus Island before he was evacuated to Melbourne for medical treatment last July.

Two months ago he was abruptly moved from the Mantra Hotel to the Melbourne Immigration Transit Accommodation (MITA). His art supplies were taken without explanation and not returned.

Farhad Bandesh has been in detention for seven years.
Refugee Farhad Bandesh has been in detention for seven years.

"It's really, utterly dehumanising ... To take someone's art materials away from them, to do that to me, you might as well shoot me," said artist Ben Quilty, who co-signed the letter.

"A system that takes art materials away from a refugee, it's more than appalling, and to be honest - I'm ashamed of my Australian passport," he said.

"Farhad hasn't done anything wrong, he's not a criminal, he's a refugee."

Mr Quilty has won some of the country's top art prizes, including the Archibald Prize, and is a vocal advocate for refugees.

Artist Ben Quilty co-signed the letter.
Artist Ben Quilty co-signed the letter.

Mr Quilty and the other artists have also noted Mr Bandesh's "forced relocation" to MITA took place just days after he appeared on ABC's Q+A to raise questions about the safety of refugees in detention.

The group expressed solidarity for all other refugees in onshore or offshore detention who are still waiting for their freedom.

"The way we actively dehumanise people and perform the destruction of people's humanity [in onshore and offshore detention] is shameful," Mr Quilty said.


'I am surviving because of my artwork'

While in detention on Manus Island and in Australia, Mr Bandesh has developed a following for both his artworks and music.

His paintings and songs have depicted life behind bars and imagery of the world outside.

Farhad Bandesh in Papua New Guinea.
Farhad Bandesh in Papua New Guinea.

Speaking from MITA, Mr Bandesh told SBS News he has been given no reason why his art supplies were confiscated.

"Art is really important to me. At this time, I am in prison. The art, my paintings, help me not to go crazy. I am surviving because of my artwork," he said.

"When I create something, I think I am not a forgotten person, I am a person creating."

Mr Bandesh said he fled Iran as he was a Kurdish activist and his seven years in detention have been unfair and cruel.

"Refugees, we have rights. We are people like you. There is no difference between refugees and the people in the community."

One of Farhad Bandesh's artworks.
One of Farhad Bandesh's artworks.

SBS News contacted the Department of Home Affairs with questions about Mr Bandesh's art supplies and why he was moved from the hotel to MITA.

"The department does not comment on individual cases," a spokesperson from Australian Border Force said.

The spokesperson said detainees have some art and craft supplies provided for their use in activity rooms.

"Detainees continue to have independent access to external scrutiny bodies that have a mandate to provide oversight of the operations of immigration detention facilities, including alternate places of detention," the spokesperson said.

"In making placement decisions, the individual's needs are balanced against broader risk, capacity and security issues at the detention facility level."

'A paintbrush can be a lifeline'

The letter in support of Mr Bandesh was signed by 13 artists who have served as the country's Offical War Artist.

The program, managed by the Australian War Memorial, embeds artists with Australian military forces in conflict zones and peacekeeping missions.

"We condemn the silencing of a fellow artist ... A paintbrush can be a lifeline for a prisoner," the letter says.

"Why withhold art materials? They are not illegal or unsafe. The threat lies, instead, in the ability of art to challenge injustice, the power of a free voice in an unfree system."

"We have all been participants in the Official War Art Scheme … Chosen by the state to humanise the experience of war, we reject the attempt to dehumanise those who have fled violence, poverty, and persecution."

Ben Quilty with the work he produced after being in Afghanistan.
Ben Quilty with the work he produced after being in Afghanistan.

In 2011, Mr Quilty was attached to the Australian Defence Force observing their activities in Afghanistan.

"During the time I was in Afghanistan there were floods of people escaping there and I saw with my own eyes the terror and the destruction and the utter breakdown of an ancient culture happening before me," he said.

"Of course people are trying to escape places like that."

He urged politicians from all sides to show more compassion at this time.

"Support people to make beautiful things, to tell stories about the world, and to try and make the planet and the human race better for our grandchildren, not worse, which is what all of the political leaders in the west are doing."

The letter was also co-signed by Tony Albert, Rick Amor, Lyndell Brown, Charles Green, Jon Cattapan, Peter Churcher, Megan Cope, eX de Medici, Shaun Gladwell, Lewis Miller, Susan Norrie and Wendy Sharpe.

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