Skip to main content

The art of resilience: Famous artists who've sought refuge exhibit in Sydney

'Refugees' exhibition
Visitors in front of 'Erasure (Still #1)' by Dinh Q. Lê at the 'Refugees' exhibition

Supplied: Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre

An exhibition has opened in Australia featuring works from a diverse group of 22 high profile international artists, who have all sought refuge at some point in their lives.

Their experiences include being displaced in their own country like Yoko Ono after the 1945 bombing of Tokyo, and Ai Wei Wei during the Chinese Cultural Revolution; or seeking refuge overseas, like Vietnamese artist Dinh Q. Lê during the conflict between the Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge in 1979.

'Bukhara (red)' 2007 by Mona Hatoum
'Bukhara (red)' 2007 by Mona Hatoum.

Supplied: Art Gallery of New South Wales


Toni Bailey, curator of the Refugees exhibition at the Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre in Liverpool, south-western Sydney, wants this group of artists to show “the dangers that people have fled."

She says “it’s often forgotten that refugees have existed since war existed, and that Australia has welcomed large amounts of refugees in the past. It’s good to be reminded of that. And art is a powerful, non-threatening medium that can move people.”

'Play It By Trust' 1966 and 2013 by Yoko Ono
'Play It By Trust' 1966 and 2013 by Yoko Ono.

Supplied: Museum of Contemporary Art Australia


Ah Xian, an Australian-Chinese artist, sat silently and still in a plinth for three hours on the opening night of the exhibition. He describes this performance as “a true still life” that was a “meditative and peaceful” reflection on the experience of seeking refuge.

Ah Xian was born in Beijing and first came to Australia to attend an artists-in-residence program at the Tasmanian College of Arts in 1989. He returned to Beijing just before the Tiananmen Square massacre on the 4th of June, 1989.

Although he wasn’t physically hurt or wasn’t affiliated with any organisations, Ah Xian stayed in Chang’an Avenue (otherwise known as Peace Avenue), which leads to Tiananmen Square. Here he witnessed the heavy fighting between citizens and the military.

'Serenity-self portrait' by Ah Xian
'Serenity-self portrait' by Ah Xian. This was a three hour performance on the opening night of 'Refugees'.

Supplied: Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre


Prior to the brutal Tiananmen Square crackdown, Ah Xian says being a freelance artist in Beijing felt “like living under an invisible pressure."

"There had already been a tension between officials and ordinary people — especially young people like myself who wanted more freedom of expression.”

- Ah Xian

He had intended to stay in Beijing but changed his mind after witnessing the horrific massacre in 1989.

In 1990 he returned to Australia to take part in an exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and then applied for political asylum. He was granted permanent residency five years later and eventually an Australian passport. Reaching this milestone made him “hopeful and peaceful."

Ah Xian
'China China - Bust 81' 2004 by Ah Xian.

Supplied: Museum of Contemporary Art


Nowadays, Ah Xian lives in Australia and works in China two to three times a year to produce a series of busts. He says that porcelain craftsmanship is a “unique form of art” that is one of China’s most brilliant materials, and something to be very proud of.  But being labelled a refugee brings out mixed feelings in Ah Xian.

"It’s not something that I was proud of. I was forced to seek asylum because of the situation in China. I’m so grateful that Australia helped me. But day to day, I don’t remind myself of being a refugee. Since moving to Australia, I live an increasingly peaceful life."

- Ah Xian

'Refugees' exhibition
'Refugees' exhibition.

Supplied: Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre


Refugees curator Toni Bailey told ABC Radio's Wendy Harmer that she hopes the exhibition will “show refugees as people who’ve had enormous courage and resilience...to leave behind everything they know and love and seek safety.”

The culturally diverse local area of Liverpool is a fitting location for the exhibition. In the Liverpool region, 40 per cent of residents are born overseas and over 130 different languages are spoken. For locals with first hand experience of being a refugee, Toni says “I want them to feel like they have a voice and that they’re seen."

'Picturesque Scenery No. 27' by Guo Jian
'Picturesque Scenery No. 27' by Guo Jian.

Supplied: Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre

Watch The Mix on Australia Plus Television on Sunday 7 August at 20:00 HKT and 23:00 HKT for an interview with participating artists at the Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre.

For more stories like this, join the Australia Plus community on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter and Instagram.