Refugee artist traces old cameleer routes

·2-min read

When Adelaide-based artist Elyas Alavi, a refugee from Afghanistan, started researching the lives of camel drivers working in outback Australia more than a century ago, he discovered an important connection.

Thousands of men known as Afghan cameleers travelled to Australia to carry goods in an often harsh climate before the development of railways and roads.

Mr Alavi, 38, says he connected to cameleers through their music, language and scripts, and the notebooks they left behind.

"The cameleers were a very diverse (group of people). Among them, they were artists and musicians," he says.

"It's important (for) me to project these historical connections with Australia. I want to show we are not the 'others' or strangers. We have been here for a long time."

He says the cameleers were not able to bring family members to Australia, an issue that current asylum seekers also face.

Originally from Afghanistan, Mr Alavi spent many years in Iran as a refugee before resettling in Australia in 2007 through a United Nations program.

"As a Hazara refugee having fled my homeland as a child, if I were to describe my sense of self in one word, it would be 'uprooted'," he says.

Members of the Hazara community have long faced persecution, especially under the Taliban.

Mr Alavi spent a year retracing the steps of the cameleers in remote towns like Oodnadatta, Coober Pedy and Broken Hill to understand his own cultural heritage and connection to Australia.

Inspired by his travel, his painting and photo exhibition, Not Just a Shadow, is being shown at the Post Office Projects gallery in Adelaide. The artist plans to take the exhibition around Australia.

"I feel connected more to this land as a person who was not born here. I feel I have these long roots in this land," he says.

Mr Alavi, a published poet in Farsi, turned to visual arts because he could not find an audience in Australia for his poems.

He addresses issues of displacement, trauma and war through his work.

The camel drivers - widely referred to as Afghan cameleers even though many also came from the provinces of modern-day Pakistan and India - helped outback communities and industry to survive by transporting goods from cities to inland areas.

Cameleers remained a significant occupation until the introduction of road and rail infrastructure in the 1920s.

Mr Alavi says that through his research he discovered that cameleers had a deeper connection to Australia than he had previously thought.

He says many formed a close relationship with Indigenous communities.

"They respected the land very well, that's why this bond happened between cameleers and First Nations," Mr Alavi says.

"The cameleers formed a genuine relationship and friendship."

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