Seeking Humanity

There’s a tendency to perceive a group of people by their collective term and lose sight of them as individual human beings. This is hugely evident in one of the most prevalent and contentious issues in Australia today: asylum seekers and refugees.

In Seeking Humanity, an exhibition currently showing at the Belconnen Arts Centre in Canberra, portraitist Wendy Sharpe seeks to break down the limitations of that tendency. The Archibald Prize-winning artist has, in conjunction with the Asylum Seekers Centre in Sydney, produced a series of intimate portraits that humanise the asylum seeker debate, bringing individual asylum seekers and their personalities to the foreground.

Consisting of 29 brilliant chalk portraits, Seeking Humanity puts a human face to asylum seekers and refugees in Australia. The exhibition aims to reach out to the community and show asylum seekers and refugees for who they really are – that is, in Sharpe’s words, “individuals, with hopes and dreams, just like ours.”

Each portrait is drawn head on, and each subject faces the viewer in an inquiring, approachable way. Walking around the exhibition is like having conversation with a room full of fascinating people, each with their own idiosyncrasies, backgrounds, talents, hopes and dreams. As Sharpe notes: “Because the portraits are drawn entirely from life, you get a sense of [the person] and how they are in that particular moment… you get a sense of someone if they are quite shy, or vivacious.”

Sharpe had been thinking about the project for a number of years. “A lot of Australians are disgusted about the way Australia has been treating these people,” she says. “They are people for whom it’s an issue of ‘if I stay here, I will be killed.’”

The fact that we don’t get to see these people as individuals makes people less compassionate than they would be if they had access to these people.

Sharpe believes that a problem confronted by the Australian public is the fact that asylum seekers and refugees are regarded collectively under a broad heading, which prevents the public from being able to truly connect and empathise with the people behind the issue. She explains: “The fact that we don’t get to see these people as individuals makes people less compassionate than they would be if they had access to these people.”

Wanting to address this issue, Sharpe made contact with the Asylum Seeker Centre in Newtown, which enabled her to arrange for asylum seekers and refugees to sit for a portrait. Each portrait was completed face to face and took between 2–3 hours to create. It allowed Sharpe to better know her subjects as she created their likeness; she describes the process as a “fascinating and quite humbling experience.”

Sharpe is renowned for her ability to express the intricacies of love, human character and complex relationships through her art. While the composition and style of the portraits comprising this exhibition are less elaborate than Sharpe is known for, each portrait has a different kind of depth achieved through the portrait’s expression, gesture and clothing.

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Wendy noticed that her subjects wanted to be dressed in an outfit or with a prop or badge, that represented either their greatest achievements or the happiest moments in their life. The portrait of Moz Moz: A Strong Woman represents a lady in a nurse’s uniform wearing a silver pendant necklace. The nurse’s uniform alludes to the job which Moz Moz proudly held in her home country, and the necklace, featuring a smiling face, she used to wear while working as a nurse to bring happiness to her patients and their families.

The strength of this exhibition is that it allows a viewer to gain a deeply personal insight into the individuals implicated in asylum seeker rhetoric in Australia. Walking through this exhibition affords us the opportunity to connect with these people as individuals, rather than just nameless and faceless people grouped collectively under the heading of “asylum seekers” or “refugees”.

The portraits in the exhibition are for sale, and all of the proceeds from the exhibition will be donated to the Asylum Seeker Centre, which provides personal and practical support to asylum seekers such as legal advice health care, food and employment assistance.

Seeking Humanity will run until April 15th at the Belconnen Arts Centre in Canberra, after which it will then move on to Penrith Regional Gallery.

Photo credit: All images by Amy McGregor.