The photographs of an artist and former Afghan refugee Abdul Karim Hekmat make a powerful point about Australia's asylum-seeker policy in Unsafe Haven: Hazaras in Afghanistan at RMIT Gallery.
The exhibition was opened last week by barrister, author, human rights and refugee advocate, Julian Burnside AO QC.
The evening, which featured a live performance by popular Hazara musician Zia Sahil and his band, also celebrated the opening of a concurrent exhibition, Only From The Heart Can You Touch The Sky.
Unsafe Haven: Hazaras in Afghanistan documents Abdul Karim Hekmat's return to his homeland in 2010 and what he discovered about the daily life and continuing persecution of the Hazara people.
RMIT Gallery Director Suzanne Davies said Unsafe Haven was powerful and timely given the current deterioration of the situation in Afghanistan, and invited us to ask why the Government insists Afghans should be forced to return.
Since January 2001, a Memorandum of Understanding between the Australian Government, the Government of Afghanistan and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees permits the involuntary repatriation from Australia of unsuccessful Afghan asylum-seekers.
The agreement includes provision for sending back unaccompanied minors and Afghan children separated from their families.
"The status of the Hazaras in particular, who are vulnerable because of their ethnicity and religious belief, has become ever more perilous in the past few months as it is intertwined with the general security situation in Afghanistan," Ms Davies said.
"The images of Unsafe Haven highlight the physical drama of the landscape matched by the resilience and dignity of the people of Afghanistan.
"Art can eloquently communicate the power of the human spirit and it is the art gallery that provides us a safe space to explore difficult aspects of politics and social justice."
The artist Abdul Karim Hekmat, who arrived from Afghanistan in 2001, said that with the first legal case surrounding the deportation of an Afghan asylum-seeker from Australian soil, Ismael Mirza Jan, now underway, the exhibition was even more relevant.
"I have visited Ismael Mirza Jan in detention and he has said he fears he will be killed if he returns. If he is deported, hundreds will follow, setting a precedent to others," Mr Hekmat said.
"With current debate about Australian forces leaving Afghanistan, I want Unsafe Haven to offer an insight into the political complexities of Afghanistan as Hazaras are a persecuted ethnic group.
"If the international troops leave there is going to be a civil war. Not enough groundwork has been built for a stable Afghanistan, and mostly the victims will be the Hazaras."
Put together with the UTS Cosmopolitan Civil Societies Research Centre (CSS), Amnesty International and the Australian Refugee Council, the exhibition is intended to give insight into the plight of the Hazaras and to challenge the view that Afghan asylum-seekers are no longer in need of protection.
Mr Burnside will join Mr Hekmat; David Manne, Executive Director, Refugee and Immigration Legal Centre; Dr Anne McNevin, RMIT academic and author of Contesting Citizenship: Irregular Migrants and the New Frontiers of the Political; and Najaf Mazari, Afghani refugee and author of The Rugmaker of Mazar-e-Shari; The Honey Thief, at a panel discussion on Unsafe Haven on 3 May, 5.30pm-7pm at RMIT Gallery.
Drawing its title from a poem by Movlana Jalal al-Din Rumi, the celebrated 13th-century Persian mystic poet, the concurrent exhibition focuses on the fusion of art and poetry.
Only From The Heart Can YouTouch The Sky features paintings by Hazara artists Khadim Ali (Australia-Afghanistan) and Ali Baba Awrang (Afghanistan), calligraphy by Iranian poet and playwright Mammad Aidani, as well as Persian rugs.
Calligraphy is the most commonly-practised of the visual arts in Afghanistan, and Kabul-based Ali Baba Awrang has been creating calligraphic art for 20 years.
Sydney-based Khadim Ali, a Hazara, originally from Afghanistan and whose works have been exhibited internationally, trained in miniature painting at the National College of Arts, Lahore, Pakistan and draws on imagery from sources including the Bamiyan Buddhas.
Mammad Aidani (Melbourne) has researched and published on the Iranian diaspora, belonging, identity, and migration, and will respond to the artworks using freeform poetry in Persian script.
Ms Davies said an extensive public program – featuring playwrights, authors, musicians and cultural historians – would play an important part in allowing audiences to understand the complexity and historic background of the art works.
"As there is an intrinsic connection between the poetic, calligraphy and carpet weaving, we have sourced distinctive Persian carpets from private collections that will lend themselves to discussion about links with poetic and philosophical ideas," she said.
"The grandly poetic Iranian movie Gabbeh, directed by Mohsen Makhmalbaf, will be shown daily as its themes of beauty, art, poetry and love resonate with the works in the exhibition. This wonderful film explores a Persian carpet woven with bright wools that comes to life in a love story."
See the details of the free events in the public program.
The exhibitions are at RMIT Gallery, 344 Swanston Street, Melbourne, until 9 June.