I first became familiar with Safdar Ahmed’s work through his webcomic about his fraught relationship with his father, The Good Son. It showed Ahmed’s knack for illustrating the mind’s landscape, his death-metal-inspired illustrations giving an outlet to his turmoil.
Still Alive, his first full-length graphic work, is a departure from his more personal zine-making. It documents Ahmed’s experience running the Refugee Art Project (RAP) at Sydney’s Villawood Immigration Detention Centre, and illustrates the accounts of several asylum seekers who have been detained there and in Australia’s offshore facilities, while providing a history of this country’s refugee policy.
Still Alive exemplifies the graphic novel’s capacity for juxtaposition as resistance. His intricately layered pages demonstrate the effects of government policies on real people. He places a politician’s tight mouth with the pejorative “queue jumping” next to the strained faces of refugees, who in detention are “addressed by their boat number”. As he tells Afghan refugee Haider’s story, Ahmed’s crosshatching becomes increasingly frenzied, mirroring his growing distress. Ahmed successfully wields emotional impact through visual metaphors that could be cheesy elsewhere: a person is hammered by a gavel; a woman is encircled by chains. The book includes illustrations by asylum seekers, which provide a meaningful counterpoint.
I was surprised that Ahmed contemplates his anxiety about his role only towards the end. “I find it hard to draw myself into this comic,” he says, before his body melts into ooze, articulating his guilt.
However, Still Alive is a worthy testament to the reparative qualities of community art, while acknowledging its limitations. At one point, as Ahmed draws a skull, a participant in the project asks if he can draw something personal. “Of course, but only if you’re okay with it … In this group you make the rules.” The text is ironised by an image of the spiked fence outside Villawood.
In a later panel, we see artists sitting at a RAP drawing table. One person is annoyed, having accidentally stabbed themselves with a pencil, another chides their lack of perspective, one is frustrated by stuffing up their drawing, while another suggests ordering pizza. Through these banal moments, Ahmed suggests that perhaps this sitting with and sitting beside, scribbling and exchanging, while not perfect, is something of value.
A pen, a conversation, a pizza; things that can be shared, right now.
Twelve Panels Press, 240pp, $30
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 10, 2021 as "Safdar Ahmed, Still Alive".
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