Toxic bodies and Muslim zombies: (Re)storying refugees in Australian-based comic art zines

— by Dr Daniella Trimboli, The University of Melbourne

This paper was presented as a short conference paper on the plenary panel ‘Unsettled’ at the Locating Lives: International Auto/Biography Association of Australasia in Adelaide, 2-4 December 2015.

All images are used here with permission from The Refugee Art Project, Silent Army, Safdar Ahmed, and Michael Fikaris. Special thanks to Safdar, Michael, and all of the artists involved in their respective projects.

 

Sam Wallman illustration in "Where Do I Belong?" (2015)

Images 1&2 (from L-R)

 

Migration has long been the subject of suspicion. Nikos Papastergiadis (2009, p. 147) has traced the ways migrants have been seen to be a deviation from the norm of settled life since the nineteenth century, perceived at best to be ‘victims of external forces’ or, at worst, as dubious characters seeking unfair advantage over residents and posing a threat to prevailing social orders. He notes that even with the arrival of modernisation, which places a positive spin on mobility, migration is still considered a temporary or transitional phase—it is cause for concern if you remain on the move. Or, if we think about this in Sara Ahmed’s (2014) terms: you are in the way of what is on the way (where what is on the way, in this case, is the continuation of particular cultural structures and practices). This circumstance is troubling for a number of reasons, not least because forced displacement of people across the globe is at an all-time high. The United Nations Refugee Agency (2015) estimated more than thirteen million refugees were in need of help in 2014, and the global migration crisis of recent months has only exacerbated these figures.

 

Due to the liminal spaces that migrants are often forced to occupy, it is hardly surprising that there is also a long history of representing these people as ghosts in public commentary, but also in private testimonies of seeking asylum. We know that the power of discourse is its ability to create that which it names. When the discourse of migration accumulates with nationalist rhetoric, border security, the disciplining power of surveillance and detention, and the biopolitics of terror—as it has in recent years—migrants are not only represented as monsters, animals, and zombies but come to embody this corporeal sense of displacement—the abject body, the body beyond the boundaries of humanness. It is therefore no coincidence that this type of discourse repeats itself in the autobiographical accounts of asylum seeking.

 

Image 3

Image 3

 

Image 4

Image 4

 

The Refugee Art Project has been key in allowing for the expression and sharing of these accounts in artistic forms. As you can see in these examples from the project’s various comic zines, the face and body are often distorted in the artistic representations. Text accompanying the images often includes statements such as: ‘get rid of the sick mind’; ‘I don’t belong to myself, I’m lost… I don’t know where I belong’.

 

stifled, mohammad

Image 5

Image 6

Image 6

 

A significant characteristic of these comic art zines is the blending together of different storytelling techniques with art practices to not only express or represent the experience of asylum, but to allude to another reality in subtle but powerful ways. ‘Sleep Cycle in Villawood’ is a comic strip by Alway, Talha, and Zeina in Silent Army’s project Where Do I Belong?  (2015) that gives voice to a detention centre detainee and speaks to the precarious predicament of the refugee body. It also hints at a form of agency.

 

I like to avoid the daytime … All I see during the day are the same sad faces. They feel sorry for me, I feel sorry for them. At night, after 2am, there is hardly anyone around. This is the time I’m awake. I can use any room I want without the crowd. I feel more relaxed.

 

This text reveals a highly paradoxical situation—the narrator feels diminished by the zombie-like crowd during the day at Villawood, and chooses another type of routine, but this routine is that of another nonhuman trope–the vampire—another not-quite alive not-quite dead character that thrives on humans. Choosing the vampire routine rather than the zombie routine is far from a moment of liberation, but it is a very small act of resistance, which is then accentuated by the sharing of this experience through the project. Indeed, I argue that the subversiveness of these comic art zines occurs via the fleshing out of this paradoxical tension, carrying out an ironic deployment of the violent and dehumanising discourse about asylum seekers. I want to think about this ironic deployment in a different way to that which Foucault (1978) introduces us to in the History of Sexuality. The ironic deployment outlined by Foucault sees the deployment of sexuality discourse as reinstating the violent categories of sex. In the comic art zine, the negative discourse is frequently harnessed and inverted.

 

This ironic deployment involves at least one of two key techniques:

  1. Taking the trope of the toxic body to creative impact, sometimes to its extremes

This technique is exemplified by Safdar Ahmed, founder of the Refugee Art Project, in his comic book and essay, Islamophobia: Night of the Muslim Zombies (2015).

 

Image 7

Image 7

Image 8

Image 8

Image 9

Image 9

 

Another example is seen in the children’s art zine, Mr Man from the Garden.

 

Image 10

Image 10

 

Here, the ghosts and the mutant creatures are the Immigration Officers asking Mr Man for his papers.

 

Images 11 & 12

Images 11 & 12

 

Mr Man resists, holding tightly onto thoughts of his peaceful garden.

 

Image 13

Image 13

 

Eventually the monsters skulk away.

 

Image 14

Image 14

 

  1. The second technique, which is subtler, is the use of illustration and text to manoeuvre, negotiate, and thwart the material outline and embodied experiences of the refugee body.

 

In ‘Accident: A Story of Entrapment’, Michael Fikaris (2015) brings to life Osme’s story of being in exile in East Timor as a six year old boy in the 1980s. Osme and his two friends try to cross military guards to visit the town, but are inevitably caught. As punishment, the Commanding Officer orders the youths to somersault up to the edge of the jungle and back. I quote:

 

The boys began to roll but the bigger of the three had trouble. He rolls in a manner unique to him. Others, not wanting to get too dizzy trying summersaults, drew inspiration from him. Soon all three are rolling badly in the vague direction of where they had been commanded to head but their form is lousy and their style is sloppy (Fikaris 2015).

 

Image 15

Image 15

 

The boys are reprimanded for their bad technique, and the Officer demonstrates how a well-disciplined body does somersaults—cleanly, neatly, and highly practiced. However,

 

his trajectory is not thought through and on the second tumble the commanding officer of the camp finds himself landing on his back in a thorn bush. He is in pain. He is enraged.. He leaps up and grabs his rifle—with full intention of shooting the youth (Fikaris 2015).

 

So, the Officer’s highly practiced routine fails him—the unique, sloppy rolls of the boys get the upper hand. The boys run into the jungle and are once again safe.

 

Image 16

Image 16

 

Here, the body becomes an instrument of agency.

The comic art zine starts to show us how the body always manipulates the material and discursive constraints it is within.  The body adapts, survives, and invents.

 

Image 17

Image 17

Image 18

Image 18

 

I conclude by referencing these pictures in Safdar Ahmed’s comic, Villawood: Notes from an Immigration Detention Centre (2015), based on a Villawood detainee. On collaborating with Safdar the detainee says: “Writing this was like torture for me. I had to stop and go away and then go back to it. But that’s okay because I want this… it helps me think about my past.” As the accompanying images show: the comic zine creative process helps one get out of one’s body and then return to it in a different, more livable way.

 

Images 19 & 20

Images 19 & 20

 

References

Ahmed, S 2014, ‘Willful subjects: responsibility, fragility, history’, keynote paper presented to AWGS Biennial International Conference, University of Melbourne, 23-25 June.

Ahmed, S 2015, Villawood: notes from an immigration detention centre, retrieved 25 June 2015, https://medium.com/shipping-news/villawood-9698183e114c#.gc3covva6

Fikaris, M, Ahmed, S & Wallman, S (eds) 2015. “Where Do I Belong?”: A Silent Army Concern, Silent Army in association with The Refugee Art Project and Signal, The City of Melbourne, Melbourne.

Foucault, M 1978, The history of sexuality, volume one: an introduction, trans. R Hurley, Penguin Books, London.

Papastergiadis, N 2009, ‘Wog Zombie: The De- and Re-humanisation of Migrants, from Mad Dogs to Cyborgs’, Cultural Studies Review, vol. 15, no. 2, pp. 147-178.

UNHCR – The UN Refugee Agency 2015, ‘Know Your Numbers’, retrieved 27 November 2015, http://www.unhcr.org/pages/49c3646c11.html

 

List of Images

Images featured here with permission from Refugee Art Project and Silent Army.

Image 1: Scanned image of a page from Where Do I Belong? featuring illustration by Sam Wallman, Silent Army in association with The Refugee Art Project and Signal, The City of Melbourne, Melbourne, 2015.

Image 2: Scanned image of a page from Where Do I Belong? featuring illustration by Sam Wallman, Silent Army in association with The Refugee Art Project and Signal, The City of Melbourne, Melbourne, 2015.

Image 3: Photograph of a spread from Refugee Art Project zine #8 featuring artwork by Fakhruddin Rajai, (A4 drawings), 2014.

Image 4: Scanned image of drawing by Mona Moradveisi for ‘Under the Shade of the Waq Waq Tree’ project, pen and ink on paper (21x29cm) in Refugee Art Project zine #9 2014.

Image 5: Untitled, A4 illustration by Mohammad, The Refugee Art Project, 2015.

Image 6: Untitled, coffee painting by Mohammad, The Refugee Art Project, retrieved 27 November 2015, http://therefugeeartproject.com/home/m-political-cartoons/

Image 7: ‘Stop Creeping Sharia!’, illustration by Safdar Ahmed in Islamophobia: Night of the Muslim Zombie, an art series and essay, Sydney, 2015.

Image 8: ‘Zombie Fries!’, illustration by Safdar Ahmed in Islamophobia: Night of the Muslim Zombie, an art series and essay, Sydney, 2015.

Image 9: ‘Zombie boat people’, water colour and gouache on paper by Safdar Ahmed in Islamophobia: Night of the Muslim Zombie, an art series and essay, Sydney, 2015.

Image 10: ‘Mr Man from the Garden’ front cover image of Mr Man from the Garden: A Refugee Art Project Children’s Book, retrieved 27 November 2015, http://therefugeeartproject.com/home/refugee-art-project-zines/

Image 11: Scanned image of a spread from Mr Man from the Garden: A Refugee Art Project Children’s Book, The Refugee Art Project, Sydney, 2015.

Image 12: Scanned image of a page from Mr Man from the Garden: A Refugee Art Project Children’s Book, The Refugee Art Project, Sydney, 2015.

Image 13: Scanned image of a page from Mr Man from the Garden: A Refugee Art Project Children’s Book, The Refugee Art Project, Sydney, 2015.

Image 14: Scanned image of a page from Mr Man from the Garden: A Refugee Art Project Children’s Book, The Refugee Art Project, Sydney, 2015.

Image 15: Scanned image of a page from Where Do I Belong? featuring illustration by Michael Fikaris, Silent Army in association with The Refugee Art Project and Signal, The City of Melbourne, Melbourne, 2015.

Image 16: Scanned image of a page from Where Do I Belong? featuring illustration by Michael Fikaris, Silent Army in association with The Refugee Art Project and Signal, The City of Melbourne, Melbourne, 2015.

Image 17: Scanned image of a page from Where Do I Belong? featuring illustration by Sam Wallman, Silent Army in association with The Refugee Art Project and Signal, The City of Melbourne, Melbourne, 2015.

Image 18: Scanned image of a page from Where Do I Belong? featuring illustration by Sam Wallman, Silent Army in association with The Refugee Art Project and Signal, The City of Melbourne, Melbourne, 2015.

Image 19: Scanned image of a page from Villawood: Notes from a Detention Centre featuring comic illustration by Safdar Ahmed, Sydney, 2015, retrieved 25 June 2015, https://medium.com/shipping-news/villawood-9698183e114c#.gc3covva6

Image 20: Scanned image of a page from Villawood: Notes from a Detention Centre featuring comic illustration by Safdar Ahmed, Sydney, 2015, retrieved 25 June 2015, https://medium.com/shipping-news/villawood-9698183e114c#.gc3covva6

0 comments