Refugee stories showcased in National Gallery exhibit

Young refugees join Indonesian artists in exploring the refugee experience through an art exhibition sponsored by Jakarta-based NGO Art for Refuge.

A young refugee looks at his photos displayed for the first time in an art exhibition. © UNHCR/T. Kurniasari

Mahmud* couldn’t take his eyes off his three photos, which were beautifully framed and hung on display at the prestigious National Gallery of Indonesia in Jakarta. “It’s like a dream. I feel so proud,” said the Afghan refugee, whose work was publically exhibited for the first time.

He is one among 14 refugee artists, who were selected to exhibit their paintings, drawings and photos in an exhibition titled Berdiam/Bertandang (Staying/Visiting) organized by Jakarta-based NGO, Art for Refugee (AfR) from 20 to 27 September at the National Gallery.

Mahmud excitedly shared the stories behind his three photos. With a camera lent by his teacher local photographer Chris Bunjamin, Mahmud wandered around the streets of Jakarta to capture some moments. “I like capturing landscapes,” Mahmud said. The 17 year old refugee learned photography from his teacher at Roshan Learning Center, a community program for refugee empowerment through education.

He skillfully captured how Jakartans are able to use public spaces in the densely populated capital. The first photo displays hanging pots made of used plastic bottles, while the second photo shows hanging clothes in an alley. In the third photo, Mahmud captured a fruit vendor who used his motorbike to sell fruits.

Another refugee, Sasa, 12, also was honored to have her drawings displayed at the exhibition. She shared her dream of becoming a doctor through one of her drawings. “I want to be a doctor to help other people,” Sasa said. Another drawing, which depicts a crying eye, shows her sadness as a refugee. “It reflects refugees who end up being here in Indonesia,” adding that she wanted to live in any country which is safe for her and family to live. In the third piece, she depicted the on-going conflict in Afghanistan, the situation in Indonesia and family reunification in Australia.

Art enthusiasts flock the exhibition’s opening at the National Gallery of Indonesia. © UNHCR/M. Suryono

AfR founder Katrina Wardhana organized the exhibition. She has tirelessly worked to empower refugees through art by teaching them painting, sculpting and photography, so that they can express their stories. Katrina believes that art can provide solace for refugees, which can help them relieve any trauma, anxiety, stress or depression they may experience.

“The objective of the Berdiam/Bertandang Exhibition is not only to showcase the many talents that refugees have, but also to raise awareness amongst the Indonesian community about refugee issues here in Indonesia,” said Katrina. “Through sharing their stories through art, we hope that people can get to see the world through their eyes,” she went on.

Katrina later invited Chris to teach photography to refugee teenagers. Teaching refugee youth is something new for Chris. “They [refugees] have hopes. They have the spirit. I want to share my skills and knowledge to them for their future endeavors,” said Chris, who also displayed his works at the exhibition. “They have new insights as they have been going through hardships. They are so creative and I’m so proud of them,” he added.

Refugee children share their dreams and experiences through their drawings. © UNHCR/T. Kurniasari

The exhibition’s curator and artist, Alia Swastika, also praised the refugees’ astonishing artworks. As newcomers here, for instance, the refugee youth could see the other side and uniqueness of Jakarta. Another interesting thing, she said, is we get to see how they connect their past in their home country with their current situation in Jakarta.

These Indonesian artists who participated in the exhibition encouraged other artists to join them to support refugees in the country. “I invite my fellow artists to also share their skills [with refugees]. I want the public to be more aware on the issues of the refugee children. They are just like us,” said Chris.

Refugee youth share their stories through their drawings. © UNHCR/T. Kurniasari

Paintings of refugees by Katrina Wardhana.© UNHCR/T. Kurniasari

*Names of all refugees were changed for this article.