Features/Q&A/What to SEE/Visual Art

Stitching the stories of refugees

12 June 2023

While refugees are visible in the media, their individual stories are often unheard. This paradox drove artist Sid Pattni to create a new immersive exhibition that brings the experiences of refugees and asylum seekers to light.

When local artist Sid Pattni started volunteering at the Centre for Asylum Seekers, Refugees and Detainees he realised that there is an immense gap between the way this community is portrayed in the media and the reality of their stories and experiences.

In a bid to share those stories, and promote empathy and understanding, Pattni decided create The Story of Us. Appropriately, the exhibition will open during National Refugee Week.

An Indian-Australian artist, Pattni’s practice fuses portrait painting with traditional Indian embroidery techniques. In The Story of Us he combines that work with audio recordings to immerse the viewer in the subjects’ journeys.

Pattni is also a trained musician, who has made music with the likes of Meg Mac and M-Phazes.

Ahead of the opening of The Story of Us, Nina Levy found out more.

Nina Levy: What role did art and music play in your childhood? What drew you to the arts as a career?

Sid Pattni. Photo: Aaron Webber

Sid Pattni: I was lucky to have had parents who nurtured my interests in art and music as a child. If I wasn’t drawing comics, I was playing drums and I never had exterior pressures of one day finding a job that was “stable”. All through my childhood, I was given the space to play, explore and create, so I think that organically led to a career in the arts when I grew up.

NL: That career began with a Bachelor of Arts in Fine Arts at Curtin University, then an Advanced Diploma in Music at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA). What made you decide to follow up the visual arts degree with a qualification in music?

SP: It was just one of those random life events that changed my trajectory. I was playing drums in a few bands throughout studying my Fine Arts degree and unfortunately broke my wrist after I had graduated. My physio told me that I probably wouldn’t be able to play drums again and encouraged me to try piano as physical therapy as it was low impact.

I fell in love with the instrument and effectively locked myself in my room for a year and taught myself theory and technique using YouTube tutorials. I decided to audition for WAAPA after a year of doing that and thankfully got in.

NL: And are you currently making music?

SP: I haven’t made any music in a long time as I’ve been really focused on painting for the last few years. I will probably get back to making music at some point, but right now, I’m just trying to tell stories through paint.

NL: Tell me about that visual arts practice. What drives you to create work?

If I can transport some people through this body of work and shift their thinking, then the work has succeeded.

SP: As an Indian-Australian I feel like I am at the intersection of two cultures, unsure of how to grapple with my mixed identities. I have often struggled to find a sense of selfhood during the process of assimilation and the central preoccupation of my work lies in the exploration of identity, culture and belonging.

My practice is characterised by a process-driven approach, which entails a time-intensive technique of hand embroidering directly into painted portraits. My broader objective is to contribute to the ongoing discourse on the intersection of art, identity and social justice.

NL: Taking place during National Refugee Week, your upcoming exhibition, The Story of Us, will capture stories of refugees and asylum seekers. How will you convey those stories?

SP: I’ve tried to use a broad range of media for this body of work to immerse the viewer. The portraits are all painted in oils and synthetic polymer and a couple of the works have been embroidered back into using cotton thread.

At the exhibition, viewers will also be provided with headphones to listen to some of the refugees’ stories in their own voices.

‘My broader objective is to contribute to the ongoing discourse on the intersection of art, identity and social justice’ – Sid Pattni. Pictured: ‘The Story of Us (Portrait of Moz)’. Photo supplied

NL: What inspired you to tell these stories?

SP: I have worked as a volunteer with the Centre for Asylum Seekers, Refugees and Detainees (CARAD) for a while and been lucky to meet some incredible people. What I realised is that this community of people is stuck in a paradox of peril.

On one hand they are highly visible in places like the media where they are often described as queue jumpers, or people that will tarnish the idea of what an “Australian” looks like.

On the other hand, they are completely invisible, in that their stories are never told, and the broader context of their experience is largely unheard. This body of work was about telling their stories.

My hope is that the works can shift our understanding of these issues and give some nuance to the discourse around asylum seekers and refugees.

NL: And how did you capture the stories? What did the research process involve?

SP: The project came about after I was fortunate enough to receive the Minderoo Foundation Artist Fund Grant. I worked a lot with CARAD in the initial phase of the project. They helped me to find suitable participants who were open to sharing their stories and being painted.

Thereafter, I met up with each individual and recorded interviews about their experiences. As you can imagine, some of these stories were harrowing and hard to hear, and I struggled to process it for some time.

I took some photos of each sitter in-situ and then went to work painting them. All in all, the project took me about nine months to complete.

NL: What do you hope visitors will discover in this exhibition?

SP: One of my favourite authors is George Saunders and he says that “it’s one thing to amaze, but another to transport”. If I can transport some people through this body of work and shift their thinking, then the work has succeeded.

The Story of Us will be on display at Cleaver St & Co (14 Cleaver Street West Perth), 18-24 June 2023.

Pictured top: Left – ‘Portrait of Evans’, right – ‘Portrait of Malak’, from ‘The Story of Us’ by Sid Pattni. Photo supplied

Disclaimer: Seesaw Magazine staff use the Cleaver St & Co co-working space.

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Author —
Nina Levy

Nina Levy has worked as an arts writer and critic since 2007. She co-founded Seesaw and has been co-editing the platform since it went live in August 2017. As a freelancer she has written extensively for The West Australian and Dance Australia magazine, co-editing the latter from 2016 to 2019. Nina loves the swings because they take her closer to the sky.

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