Chrissie Ianssen’s work as a practicing community and visual artist spans over four years; in her work for the New Neighbours’ Project and the Refugee Art Project, Ianssen has been influential in expanding Parramatta as a community cultural hub in Western Sydney.  Ianssen talks with arts interview about her work on these projects and her upcoming project which will see her relocate to her childhood suburb of Ryde.

Interview by Janette Gay

Can you tell us about the New Neighbours’ Project and the Refugee Art Project?

In mid 2011 the New Neighbours’ Project got started here in North Parramatta with funding and support from Parramatta Council who sourced disused demountable buildings from Housing NSW.  As part of Pop Up Parramatta these buildings were then converted into studio spaces and the project provided an opportunity for artists interested in working with the community to showcase their artwork.

I had been getting involved with a loose collective of people, mainly academics and artists who, with Safdar Ahmed, were the driving force behind the Refugee Art Project. These committed people go into Villawood Detention Centre and work with detainees on paintings, drawings and sculptures and then assist them to put on exhibitions. At that time a number of the asylum seekers had been released from detention and were keen to secure a studio space to continue their art.  The idea of expanding the space for exchange in visual arts arose.  The art space is run by the refugees who work here, hosting open days and organising exhibitions.  Through this project they get to be part of Sydney’s art world.

The New Neighbours’ Project continues to collaborate with the Refugee Art Project which recently held an exhibition, titled “Life in Limbo”.  One innovative piece in the exhibition, produced at the North Parramatta studios by recently released artist, Majid Rabet portrays the Anzac Bridge constructed partly using an angle grinder from spaghetti.  Finding tools is always a challenge, and whilst in detention Majid did not let this stop his creativity and he collected cat’s fur to make paint brushes.

The Refugee Art Project in many ways grew out of the frustration with government immigration policy and people wanted to take action that is positive and meaningful.  Detention runs roughshod over people’s ability to take part in everyday life and this project is a real antidote, enabling their experiences to be expressed through the medium of visual arts. 

How do you involve a diverse range of people in community arts initiatives?

Engaging people, particularly the specific refugee and migrant community is really organic, often ad hoc and chaotic, often with very little happening for months.  Community arts development needs to be evolutionary, keeping the community project alive and open ended during quiet times is critical.  That is why later this year we are aiming to broaden and reinvigorate participation through workshops run partnering with Majid, Cicada Press, College of Fine Arts (COFA) and DLux Media Arts.

What community arts projects are next for you?

I am now returning after 17 years to my home suburb Ryde, using this as the base for my next community project. Parramatta, Redfern and Darlinghurst might be seen as artistic hubs, but rarely Ryde.  When I was growing up, there wasn’t much happening for artistic people like me, so I am now keen to activate more awareness of contemporary arts in the area.

In many ways the idea for this Ryde project started back in 2010 when I was awarded the Parramatta Visual Artists Fellowship, which provides a 12 month stipend. There I created art based on the diversity of architecture and ornamentation, and the different ways the styles of other countries are placed over the top of the English architecture, such as Greek columns stuck on Federation houses.  But I mainly took photos of houses and didn’t meet the people inside and to be honest I felt a little like a trespasser.

In the Ryde project, I want to engage directly with people and the (Ryde) Council is assisting me to meet with a broad range of community members, many born overseas.  Their homes are showcases for keepsakes and ornaments they have bought with them or were handed down from family members.  They show the “migratory paths” of many Australians.  I am exploring past periods of design that are carried in mass produced objects and the narrative that is underneath.  The project is a real stretch for me as a painter but it indirectly builds on my Masters of Visual Arts which was about the abstraction of Norwegian knitting patterns. This work will come together in an exhibition in October this year at Brush Farm House, in Eastwood.