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Wendy Sharpe seeks humanity beneath asylum

Archibald-prize-winning artist Wendy Sharpe paints asylum seekers and refugees in a light that reveals the personalities beyond stereotypes.

After its launch at The Muse at Sydney TAFE, Seeking Humanity exhibits at the Belconnen Arts Centre in Canberra until April 15, before moving to the Penrith Regional Gallery until May 24.

Sharpe has painted 39 people during sittings at the Newtown Asylum Seekers Centre. She has attempted to transcend the pain, bravery and fear that many have experienced when seeking asylum on these shores.

"One man who was a professional person back home wanted to be painted like that and said, ‘This is who I really am, not just the situation I’m in’.”

– Wendy Sharpe

“They’re very driven,” Sharpe said. “A lot would say, ‘Who are these people?’ because we never hear much of their life stories. They’re mainly made into statistics, rather than people.”

Her subjects are “brave, intelligent and inspirational people... from an incredibly diverse range of countries” that had “had to escape because they’ve stood up for what’s right”. Yet, she wanted to portray them as “people just like the rest of us”.

She painted Pauline Nguyen, the co-owner of Surry Hills Vietnamese restaurant The Red Lantern; Riz, an Afghani refugee who runs a local design and print business; and others who would like to tell their stories, but cannot while their applications for protection visas are being processed.

The stories are left to the portraits, and profits from sales are channelled into the Asylum Seekers Centre.

She collaborated with her subjects during the sessions. “Sometimes they would get into a pose... People would spend time choosing what they wanted to wear. One man who was a professional person back home wanted to be painted like that and said, ‘This is who I really am, not just the situation I’m in’.”

She met them in various moments. “Some people, when they have just arrived, are experiencing culture shock and many different emotions: they’re relieved, confused, sad and excited. Some are up and down and weighed down by what’s happened.”

But it wasn’t these moments Sharpe was trying to capture, rather seeking the humanity behind their experiences.

On one day she’ll never forget, she created a portrait in a three-hour morning session when the person “was in tears and shaking, fearful for someone they loved back home. This person had not been able to sleep at night. This person was up and down, and I caught them in a moment, but I didn’t want to show too much negativity. The person was in a vulnerable state but I didn’t want to draw them like that.”

“In the afternoon, after lunch, I painted a woman who had just been granted residency who was hysterical with delight. She had left everything, and was here on her own,” and had received the news that Australia was now home.

But in the end, she was depicting them beyond the boundaries of where asylum seekers are too often boxed.

“The main thing we’re interested in is awareness,” Sharpe said. “Like so many people, I’m disgusted with the way asylum seekers are treated.” 

The Point

Artist Wendy Sharpe's portrayal of asylum seekers depicts their humanity beyond their shared experiences in raising awareness of who they are

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