Inspiration struck Sha Sarwari as he pondered how his warm personal encounters as a refugee in Australia belied the portrayal of asylum seekers in its politics and media.
“I wanted to know for myself, to see what people think,” says the visual artist, an ethnic Hazara from who arrived on a boat from Indonesia in 2000 as a teenager fleeing the persecution of the Taliban.
Thus came Sarwari’s idea for his own “census on the issue of asylum seekers”, collecting private, unvarnished views through the suburbs of his adopted home city of on those at the centre of perhaps the Australian government’s most internationally contentious policy: offshore detention.
What came next was the basis for Silent Conservation, an installation artwork that has earned the 33-year-old his first national art prize, awarded by the an initiative of the City of Greater Dandenong in Victoria.
Sarwari distributed 2,000 postcards, inviting people to respond.
“The way I wanted to do it is to give them their own time and space to think about this issue, not to confront them in the street, put them under pressure,” he says.
Each postcard bore the image of a boat made of “whitewashed” newspaper and cardboard, inscribed with Sarwari’s own story.
The responses slowly began filling his postbox. His intention was to send them on to asylum seekers in detention centres, “no matter what the result, even if it was a negative or harsh view, so that the refugees will know the truth”.
In the end, there were just 15 responses, some also bearing letters.
The remaining 1,975 are represented by blank postcards in Sarwari’s floor-based installation, the self-explanatory metaphor that underpins Silent Conversation.
“I am of the view that I am still engaged with them, the people who have received my postcard and haven’t returned them,” Sarwari says.
“Maybe they’re still thinking or haven’t decided or they don’t want to decide. [But] the conversation is there, it may come back when they see news on asylum issues. It may come back into their memory, ‘There was a postcard I received and didn’t answer’.
“These blank postcards are also a metaphor for the lives of refugees stuck in detention centres here in Australia and offshore – that their lives are going nowhere, in limbo, they’re stuck, there’s nothing happening.”
Of the less than 1% who responded, Sarwari says “all were positive”.
But in these were a handful that saw asylum seeking as “running away”. These were the views of a “very courageous person who wanted to stay and fight, you know, which I respect”, Sarwari says.
This provoked a rethinking by the artist of the very meaning of the act of seeking asylum, which he now conceives of as the rejection of violence.
“There was one or two that said, ‘We welcome them as refugees but they should stay in their home country and build their own country … it should not always be an option for us to leave, to run away’.
By leaving [my homeland], I say no to war, no to killing, no to destruction
“But I don’t call it ‘running away’. By leaving, I say no to war, no to killing, no to destruction.
“I think violence and fighting and killing will get you nowhere. It will keep going and going, especially where I come from, where the basic infrastructure of life in terms of values and the fabric of society is broken.
“If I was back home, let’s say, to stay as that person said, to protect my life, I would be killed or kill someone. To me, not doing that is a contribution towards peace.
“By leaving the country, I think all refugees, they’re not only seeking peace and protection. They are contributing towards peace and freedom.”