Still Alive: Notes from Australia’s Immigration System
by Safdar Ahmed
Twelve Panels Press
Published April 2021
In the week before the May 2022 general election, decks of playing cards depicting a boat in distress were distributed to children at the Cisarua refugee learning centre in West Java. The cards show the small boat lurching dangerously, as waves pile high above it. Tiny brown figures hang over the sides at risk of falling or jumping overboard. One clings to a shaky mast. A woman lies prone on the deck. The cards are stamped with the Australian coat of arms and a link to the government’s Zero Chance campaign. The visuals echo those of a previous scare campaign directed at asylum seekers, titled No Way: You will not make Australia home. No Way included a short film that culminated with a scene of a boat engulfed by the ocean, accompanied by the soundtrack of a desperate heartbeat fading into silence.
The children at the Cisarua centre, where people await processing for refugee status, and possibly consider boarding a boat to Australia, are the targets of these chilling campaigns. Somewhere deep in the Department of Home Affairs, it seems, someone has imagined some child, engaged in a card game, being brought suddenly face to face with the scene of their own death at sea. Graphics, in the form of computer games, posters, websites and even mock horoscopes have been adopted by Border Force as integral components of its arsenal of fear and cruelty; they operate hand in hand with Australia’s policies of indefinite detention and boat turnbacks to enforce an unrelenting program of ‘deterrence’. While the latter operations are shrouded in secrecy, with heavy penalties for whistleblowers, the former are actively promoted and publicized, produced by professional PR agencies to advertise ever more grim tales of dangerous sea journeys. According to an SBS report, ‘the government has spent more than $4.1 million on ‘Illegal Maritime Arrival Education Services’ between 2011 and June 2021.’ Deploying the latest technologies and slick production values, and revelling in lush variations on the same scenario of violent death at sea, ad campaigns such as Zero Chance and No Way constitute a type of pornography of deterrence.
Against the calculated shock tactics and stereotypical effects of these official graphics, a scattered counter-archive of images has emerged painfully out of the crucible of Australian immigration detention. They reveal what remains hidden in the official images or else is obscured by labels such as ‘queue jumper,’ ‘terrorist’ or ‘people smuggler.’ Slowly, against the odds, refugee artists in onshore and offshore detention are making themselves visible to the rest of Australia. From Manus Island, Eaten Fish drew hundreds of cartoons detailing the everyday violence of this offshore Black Site, while Moz Azimitabar (a finalist for the 2022 Archibald Prize) made paintings using coffee and a toothbrush. From the Villawood Immigration Detention Centre, members of the Refugee Art Project drew images later published in a sequence of zines. In all these works, produced in conditions of utmost precarity, hope, humour and beauty come to life within the very structures designed to diminish and crush them. Together they constitute a vast creative collectivity, a visual archive of Australian detention that, through its will to freedom, its purposeful truth-telling energies and its resistant creativity stands as a counter to the shallow, meretricious stock of images sponsored by Border Force.
Still Alive by Safdar Ahmed is part of this extraordinary visual counter-archive. The book is perhaps one of the most distinctive artefacts of the Australian detention system, the product of close to a decade of creative collaboration through the drawing circle that Ahmed initiated as a volunteer at the Villawood Detention Centre. Many of the scenes and characters in Still Alive made their first appearance in the Refugee Art Project’s zines. In the first zine, published in 2013, Ahmed introduces the scene of the drawing circle that is at the heart of Still Alive:
To start the class we sit together, share food, crack jokes and exchange stories – both ridiculous and sublime – about our lives, health, families, the weather, sport, art, politics . . . Often a theme will emerge from our conversations that is best told in comic form, which is to boil it down to the unique combination of sequential, visual and narrative elements that only comics allow.
From the ridiculous to the sublime, the zines document lives closed off to the rest of Australia behind the razor wire.
Ahmed’s remarks about the distinctive characteristics of the comics form are elaborated in Hillary Chute’s book, Disaster Drawn: Visual Witness, Comics, and Documentary Form. Chute explores the role of comics as a genre which developed, especially since World War 2, as a form of documentary witnessing and counterinscription:
The essential form of comics – its collection of frames – is relevant to its inclination to document. Documentary … is about the presentation of evidence. In its succession of replete frames, comics calls attention to itself, specifically, as evidence. Comics makes a reader access the unfolding of evidence in the movement of its basic grammar, by aggregating and accumulating frames of information.
In a sequential presentation of the evidence, Still Alive unfolds the multi-dimensioned experiences and histories of incarcerated refugees. Through the meticulous work of drawing, it makes present the lives that are shut out from view and the stories that are mostly unheard. To draw by hand is to bring a level of deeply focused close attention to that which is dismissed as insignificant or expendable, and to project the minutiae of a world that is otherwise inaccessible to the reader. In Still Alive, each pencil stroke brings before our eyes the detail of Villawood as environment of diminishment, where even the trees are clad in corrugated iron and bound in spikes.
The medium of comics is distinguished by its interplay of verbal and visual, its ability to compress multiple interactions and viewpoints into a single frame and its combination of intimate scale with the condensation of time and space. Through its confident deployment of these techniques Still Alive creates a dense, embodied, thickly worlded space in which the stories of individual refugees and collective experiences of persecution and incarceration entwine. Ahmed’s book, which was recently named the Book of the Year at the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, takes its place among a global body of graphic works located in refugee camp settings: Kate Evans’ Threads, on the refugee camp known as the Jungle in Calais; Vanni, by Benjamin Dix and Lindsay Pollack about Tamil refugees trapped in the No Fire Zones of Sri Lanka; Olivier Kugler’s study of Syrian refugees, Escaping Wars and Waves; and Joe Sacco’s acclaimed works on refugee enclaves in Bosnia and Palestine, Safe Area Goražde and Footnotes in Gaza.
One story arcs across Still Alive: that of Haider, a young Hazara boy whose search for refuge takes him from Afghanistan to Iran, then overland via Turkey and continental Europe to the UK. Just as Haider begins life as a young adult in Britain, however, the UK government deports him, decreeing Afghanistan to be now safe for Hazaras. Only it isn’t. Faced with more lethal terror on his return, Haider must undertake a second fugitive passage, this time to the other side of the globe, via Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, and then by air to Australia. On arrival he is immediately placed in detention at Villawood. Haider’s story intersects with those of other refugees inside Villawood and elsewhere: Waran, a Tamil refugee from the war; Mazhar, whose hands are busy compulsively unknotting tangles of cable; Hadi who has made the gruelling sea voyage from Indonesia. Elham, from Iran, and Khadija, a teenager detained with her family, are two of the handful of female voices in the book; most refugees are young men who must undertake their flights alone, hoping to be reunited with their families sometime in the future.
Still Alive intersperses their stories with sections on multiple facets of refugee experience: the boat journey, the legal process and the many blockages the government places in the path of refugees. The litany of bureaucratic obstacles, legal sleights of hand and impossible regulations – ‘Enhanced Screening’, Temporary Protection, the Code of Behaviour – that onshore detainees confront are paired with the punitive and too often lethal experience of offshore detention in Australia’s Pacific black sites on Nauru and Manus Island. In its recapitulation of more than two decades of ever more inhumane innovations in refugee policy, Still Alive holds to account the politicians of both major parties – and by extension a public that remains hostile or at best indifferent and conveniently ill-informed.
Even as it documents stories such as Haidar’s, Still Alive calls attention to itself as a medium that makes no claim to transparency or documentary authority, but is rather the product of an engaged drawing subject. Unlike in much of documentary film or photography, the author is an embodied presence, a character inside the frame, ‘Safdar’, whose own experiences of trauma and self-reconstitution through drawing are recounted at the beginning of the book. This personal history enables a sustained reflection on how ‘art and story telling allow trauma to be visualised, externalised and re-embedded in its context … to provide a new sense of control over our story and how it should be told.’ The character Safdar emerges as not very different from the members of the drawing circle, mostly young men with the same interests and preoccupations as their counterparts on the outside: love and sex, family, cricket, heavy metal – and comics.
Still Alive is actively engaged throughout with the ethics and aesthetics of its own graphic form. It is the tale of a drawing circle, told in drawings. There are drawings within the drawing and comics within the comic. Ahmed’s multilayered drawings invoke a visual repertoire from Goya and Hogarth to twentieth-century Holocaust comics, such as Art Spiegelman’s classic Maus and its less familiar predecessor, August Maria Froehlich’s Nazi Death Parade. Still Alive, whichtakes its title from a line in ‘Refugee Blues’, W.H Auden’s 1939 poem about the closing of borders against refugees from Germany, begins with an image in the manner of a German woodcut, as does each new chapter of the book. The visual links to Nazi Germany are implicitly reinforced in Ahmed’s allusions to Australian racio-nationalist iconographies, for example, Max Dupain’s celebrated photograph The Sunbaker. While Dupain’s work is associated with a eugenicist idealisation of the white body as a new Australian racial type, in Still Alive, a refugee lies on the deck of a boat facedown in Sunbaker pose, at risk of serious burning. In an interview with Maria Tumarkin, Ahmed suggests that such visual subversions have the potential to ‘rewire’ white nationalist mythologies of the beach and the ocean. Elsewhere, Still Alive recontextualizes or reworks the rhetoric of ‘deterrence,’ placing the seemingly bland statements of politicians against visuals of malignant ferocity: baying wolves, snarling monsters.
The various artists in the book find their own ways of telling their stories. Among the most striking of these are the intricate knot drawings produced by Mazhar to represent the intractable thickets of bureaucracy and regulation in which refugees become ensnared. Others contribute their stories through drawings in their own distinctive styles: ‘Execution’ by Waran recalls the trophy photographs Lankan soldiers took as they executed Tamil prisoners. Other drawings are collaborations, with Safdar collaborating online with Amir Taghinia, incarcerated on Manus Island, to narrate the agonizing deaths in custody of Reza Barati and Hamid Khazaei, deaths for which Australian officials bear ultimate responsibility.
Again and again, the members of the circle draw one another, Safdar included. The same scenes and events drawn by different members of the circle appear in the zines and in Still Alive. Part of a panel from a ‘visual minute’ of the drawing circle by Anton Pulvirenti opens the first zine and is repeated, with small variations, in a drawing by Ahmed. Members repeatedly draw the drawing circle and its scattered conversations, creating, in the process, a shared space of friendship and survival within the brutal world of Villawood. Most moving are the memorial tributes by members of the circle for Ahmad Ali Jafari who, at the age of 26, died of a heart attack in his room at Villawood after being subjected to a level of bureaucratic bungling so egregious as to amount to deliberate harassment. In the scene recounting Jafari’s death, the sequential grammar of the comic ruptures and words disappear. In a silent panel lacking a frame, we see the stark images of his body laid on a stretcher, then loaded onto an ambulance. Zines 2 and 3 consist of the circle’s verbal and visual memories of Jafari, whose own words and drawings appear again in Still Alive. Jafari, with his characteristic gesture of slicking his hair across his forehead and his predilection for making tea for his friends, is one of the most memorable characters in the book.
The intense collaborative space of the drawing circle and the rich creativities it engenders are grounded in a mundanity that proves life-saving in the inhumane conditions of Villawood: sharing food, brewing tea, making conversation. Even the act of saying Good Morning to one another at 3 in the afternoon, as the group gathers around the table after another sleepless night, is an act of will, a discipline for survival that is bound to the discipline of drawing: holding the pencil, keeping the lines straight, maintaining focus. Again and again, after moments of intense grieving and pain, such as the horrific death by self immolation of Khodayar Amini, the book returns to the scene of the drawing circle. The space of concentration and comity it offers anchors the narrative, containing and relieving the horror and bringing a kind of order to teeming emotions and inexpressible thoughts. In a full-page drawing we see Mazhar, the artist of knots, engaged in the act of drawing: ‘The brain. The eye. The hand. The line. All come together on the page.’
At the end of Still Alive Haider’s story reaches a happy ending, of sorts. Released from Villawood, he finds work, takes up kickboxing again, and becomes a weekend lifeguard on Coogee beach. (Refugee lifeguards are slowly undoing nationalist mythologies of the beach and its white hero figures.) He saves up to visit his mother in Iran, a figure we last saw working as a seamstress to keep Haider and his siblings safe in a country where Afghan refugees lack legal status. From Haider’s mother’s sewing machine, a beautiful patchwork quilt unfurls along the length of the page, decorated with the faces of her children. This image is the one I find most moving in the book, a superlative drawing that wordlessly articulates the creative labour of love and care. It recognizes Haider’s mother, too, as one of Still Alive’s artists of survival. Haider’s hopes of being able to bring his mother and siblings to Australia some day project the possibility of a closing of the circle, a reunion of the family broken apart by war and the barring of borders against refugees – even as others in the book continue to struggle in community detention or remain incarcerated.
For Safdar, the completion of Still Alive leads to a period of intense doubt and self-questioning about the role of art and the responsibilities of the citizen in the ‘moral cesspool’ of Australia’s refugee policies. His conclusion, as he literally forces himself to rise out of this repulsive morass, is addressed directly to the reader: ‘It’s about doing what you can with what you have.’ Summed up in this simple directive are the gamut of actions undertaken by many thousands over the last two decades: signing petitions, joining protests, staging vigils, writing letters to politicians who will never read them, visiting detention centres, breaking bread, opening up a spare room. For Safdar, the book ends with a return to the space of the drawing circle. Random snatches of conversation around the table. Slices of pizza rapidly disappearing on a plate. Head down, pencil firmly in hand. Drawing the line.
Safdar Ahmed, ‘Welcome to the Refugee Art Project comic zine.’ Refugee Art Project Zine 1. 2013
Safdar Ahmed and Maria Tumarkin, 2021. Still Alive Q and A. Twelve Panels Press https://vimeo.com/556431394.
Hillary Chute, Disaster Drawn: Visual Witness, Comics, and Documentary Form, Harvard University Press, 2016.
Eden Gillespie. ‘Ad agency behind government’s film competition warning against ‘illegal migration’ has won ethical awards.’ SBS News February 18 2022.