The Saturday Paper

Books: Susan Johnson’s From Where I Fell. Thuy On Safdar Ahmed’s Still Alive.

- Eloise Grills

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
Twelve Panels Press, 240pp, $30

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