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Refugee art in Indonesia

18 December 20180 comments

The National Gallery of Indonesia recently hosted the art work of asylum seekers and refugees in a special exhibition.

Titled Berdiam/Bertandang, which means Stay/Visit, the exhibition aimed to raise awareness of the plight of refugees while they wait in an uncertain and increasingly prolonged period of transit.

There are about 13,800 people identified as “persons of concern” by the UNHCR residing in Indonesia. About half of the refugees in Indonesia are from Afghanistan.

Indonesia has historically been a transit country for refugees seeking asylum in third countries, particularly Australia.

While Indonesia is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, it also does not deport asylum seekers and refugees back to potential danger.

President Joko Widodo in January 2017 signed a presidential decree that for the first time acknowledged the presence of a refugee community in Indonesia as distinct from “illegal immigrants” and gave directives to various government institutions regarding their respective responsibilities in managing humanitarian aid.

They continue to be denied the right to work, however, and opportunities for formal education are limited.

And resettlement in third countries such as Australia, the United States and Canada are becoming increasingly more difficult for refugees residing in Indonesia.

Mumtaz Khan Chopan, a professional artist who arrived in Indonesia in 2013 and whose paintings were part of Berdiam/Bertandang, said being an artist in Afghanistan is risky.

He said there were very few art institutions, restricting opportunities to “go and practice and talk to likeminded people, artists”.

“Most of the people in Afghanistan believe that art is not a valuable thing,” he said.

“Not only valuable, it’s not even allowed … but this does not mean that Afghanistan doesn’t have art,” Mumtaz said

The exhibition is partly the culmination of a program called Art for Refuge, established by 16-year-old Indonesian high school student Katrina Wardhana, to teach art to children and young people at the Jakarta-based Roshan Learning Center for refugees.

“I felt art was like a really powerful tool where refugees in Indonesia can share their stories,” Katrina said.

The main goal of Art for Refuge is boosting understanding about refugees in the broader community, she said.

“Having just found out about refugees only quite recently after my involvement at Roshan, I realized how unaware and un-talked-about the issue is here in Indonesia,” Katrina said.