Internet, Virtual Activism and the Blogosphere: The Refugee Art Project

For this shared discoveries week, I decided to look at an online community of migrants slightly different than the ones represented in the articles. While the migrants discussed in the readings are empowered to use their online presence for self determination and self representation, refugees in detention are largely silenced by their lack of direct access to media to tell their own stories and connect to their wider communities.

Australia has been widely criticized by organizations such as UNHCR and Amnesty International for conditions at its Manus Island and Nauru indefinite detention centres, where it currently detains asylum seekers and refugees, many of them children. For some background on Australia’s detention centres, check out this really great, short comic on one former guard’s experience working for Serco. In the Australian media, asylum seekers are frequently represented as dangerous, unwanted ‘boat people’, taking advantage of Australian compassion and benefits and threatening to end the ‘Australian way of life’ with forced multiculturalism. In this context, these migrants voices are all the more important to hear.

The refugees in Australian detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru share their stories online through The Refugee Art Project, an “apolitical” non profit that provides a showcase for refugee artwork. As The Refugee Art Project states on their website:

“Our intention is simply to enable asylum seekers to communicate to the public in their own voice, through art, which creates a bridge between them and the community. This is a political act only insofar as the voices of asylum seekers are shut out of public discussion whilst they are often misrepresented and maligned by our political leaders and the commercial media. By showing the art of asylum seekers and refugees, we hope to raise a greater public awareness about their suffering and to highlight the enormous talent that is locked away, behind razor wire.”

In this way The Refugee Art Project complicates Mainsah’s argument for the internet as being “a site of struggle rather than escape.” While the artists are literally imprisoned, through the internet, their artwork is allowed a chance to escape, inspiring support and struggle for their cause in a wider community beyond the razor wire.

In addition to their website, which showcases artwork done by asylum seekers in detention, the Refugee Art Project has an active online twitter, tumblr and facebook presence. On their website, detainees work is presented in galleries such as “memories of home”, “exile”, “surviving detention”, and “imagining Australia.” The Refugee Art Project also provides an offline voice for the detainees, distributing zines created by asylum seekers and putting on art shows of their work.

Recently, The Refugee Art Project joined in support with a number of artists in boycotting the Sidney Biennale, whose founding partner, Transfield, has been granted contracts to operate a detention centre on Manus Island. In response to the boycott, the chairman of the Biennale (who is also chairman of Transfield holdings) resigned his position with the festival. Detainee artists with The Refugee Art Project are currently collaborating to create a piece that “deals directly with the subject of their mandatory and indefinite detention” for the Biennale.


O, ‘Hope’


K, ‘Christmas Island Boat Tradgedy’


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