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Heartlands 2020 – Refugees, migrants share COVID stories through art

24 September 20200 comments

The annual Heartlands arts project for refugee and migrant artists was launched this week with a stunning exhibition of photography and digital work that gives an insight into the experiences of multicultural communities during the COVID-19 pandemic

Titled Heartlands 2020: Stories from the inside, and auspices by migrant and refugee settlement agency AMES Australia, the exhibition provides a glimpse into the experiences of multicultural communities through the prism of life during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Five artists from a range of migrant and refugee communities have produced photographic or digital artworks for this year’s exhibition. Hailing from countries including Bosnia, Iran, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Ethiopia, the artists’ work gives insights into how the pandemic has affected our diverse communities.

“Much of what we see in the media about refugees, migrants and emerging communities is portrayed through the prism of mainstream society and more so at time of global pandemic. Heartlands 2020 has offered the opportunity for culturally and linguistically diverse artists to tell their own authentic stories in the context of the pandemic,” said AMES Australia CEO Cath Scarth.

“With a perfect storm of the largest refugee crisis in history and the most deadly infectious pandemic in a century, the Heartlands project gives insight into how some of the communities who have found a safe haven in Australia in recent years are coping in difficult times,” Cath said.   

“Despite the pandemic, the aim of Heartlands remains to try to transcend cultural barriers and reveal the hopes, dreams, challenges and everyday lives of people who make up our migrant and refugee communities,” she said.

Bosnian Australian artist Saidin Salkic survived the horrors of the Srebrenica massacre in his homeIand and has established himself as one of Australia’s leading contemporary artists.

The filmmaker, poet, writer and visual artist says the pandemic inspired him to celebrate Australian culture.

“The artist always must retreat inside himself, pandemic has not changed anything in that regard for me,” Saidin said.

“What it did, it inspired me to help celebrate Australian culture, try to add to it, evolve it in my way as an artist, introduce new ideas and help further its cultural and artistic identity. It inspired me to give, care and appreciate my country,” he said. 

Chris Phung is a second-generation Vietnamese-Australian.  Currently studying sociology, Chris is a passionate advocate for refugee and migrant youth rights. His creative practice enters the world of others with empathy and opens up contemplative space to listen deeply, heal and reflect. A contemplative space which he believes is particularly important in a time where we remain physically distanced from one another, whilst so much instability is unfolding in our world.

“I’m excited to be part of Heartland this year. I feel like the exhibition is so important especially at a time when we are socially distanced from each other,” Chris said.

“For my contribution, I wanted to take a look at my mum’s connection to country and to nature and landscape around the suburbs and too understand how important it is for her to find strength and stability in such a strange isolating year,” he said.

Fatema Mukarram is a documentary photographer and visual artist originally from Afghanistan based in Melbourne. She chose photography as her medium of expression to be a visual storyteller and highlight the challenges that people face and bring it to light to the wider public.

Fatema’s imagery seeks to challenge the audience’s comfort level whilst providing an empathetic connection to the subject. Mukarram aims to open a dialogue into the issue she is documenting. Her work allows her to tear down barriers one story at a time, focusing on social injustice issues such as her current project Belong, an ongoing series about her family’s migration to Australia.

In 2019, Mukarram was part of a group exhibition ‘Bound’ at Hillvale Gallery in Brunswick. She is currently undertaking a Bachelor of Photography degree majoring in Photojournalism at Photography Studies College in Melbourne, with her graduation show exhibition coming up in December 2020 which will be held at the Centre for Contemporary Photography at Fitzroy.

“I’m really passionate about photojournalism and documentary making because I see documentary making as tool for change. I like being able to tell people’s stories,” Fatema said.

“I’m really excited about being part of the Heartlands project because being an Afghan, me and my family have faced many challenges. My images reflect life under current COVID restrictions but also referencing our cultural values and a big part of that is our faith. As a Muslim, I really wanted to capture that,” Fatema said.         

Ammar Yonis is a first-generation Harari-Australian, based in Melbourne’s west. Apart from being an engineering student, he dedicates time to exploring his creativity through mediums such as photography. He believes art encourages exploration of the unknown and promotes understanding between people. His experiences with creative expression have supported a greater freedom from the pressures that come with a third culture upbringing.

Yonis’s debut project Homage was exhibited in ‘Clearing the Shadow’, (December 2019) and demonstrated his deeply vested interest in facilitating dialogue between a diversity of voices whilst fostering an atmosphere of reflection.

Since then he has exhibited work in ‘After Dawn’ at Albert St Gallery, ‘Journeying to the Soul’ and ‘Australian Muslim Artists Exhibition’ at the Islamic Museum of Australia, and recently produced as part of the Multicultural Arts Victoria Shelter Commissions Program, which addresses the anxieties people with afro-textured hair experience in corporate settings.

“The main inspiration for my work is my family and friends and my environment. For the Heartlands project I wanted to create something that was reflective of my time in isolation during the COVID crisis,” Ammar said.

“For the last six months or so I have felt very local, my world has become smaller. So, I have tried to explore the spaces around me, finding new bike tracks of lookouts I’ve never seen before. For this photo series what I’ve put together is very local, very suburbia. I hope people like it,” Ammar said.

The Heartlands 2020 exhibition can be viewed here: