Home » Priya sewed dresses for her girls in detention. Now they're on display in Biloela's art gallery

Priya sewed dresses for her girls in detention. Now they're on display in Biloela's art gallery

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There's only one art gallery in Central Queensland's Banana Shire council that spans over 28,000km — and it's nestled comfortably in the tiny town of Biloela. Biloela is also the home of the country's most famous asylum seeker family, .

In advocating for the family's return ahead of the federal election, the gallery launched a special exhibition dedicated to the Nadesalingam family.

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The Tamil asylum seeker family was , causing a large-scale legal and advocacy battle to release them into the community. But following the , the Nadesalingams are now reunited with their beloved family friends.

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Called The Long Way Home, the exhibition features 16 artworks from local and national artists who have donated their work to the gallery in support of the family.

Director and curator of the Banana Shire art gallery Robert Connell said the exhibition is "full of joy and happiness", but is also marred with "a lot of sadness" as it brings to light the "reality of what's happened" to the family.

Robert Connell stands in front of a photograph taken by Stephanie Coombes of the Nadesalingams wearing traditional Tamil dress. Robert Connell stands in front of a photograph taken by Stephanie Coombes of the Nadesalingams wearing traditional Tamil dress.

Robert Connell, director and curator of the Banana Shire regional art gallery, is the brains behind the art exhibition. Source: SBS News / Rayane Tamer

"It's the emotion behind it that really has fuelled this entire exhibition," Mr Connell said.

"These works themselves are not just sharing what family means but also what home means ... but also what it is to belong."

The daughters' dresses in detention

The exhibition boasts an array of skill and precision from artists, both local and national, young and old - but among the best pieces are arguably from the Nadesalingam mother herself, Priya.

Despite being in detention, the mother of two who has been described as a "fighting spirit" by campaign advocates, pursued her love for sewing dresses for her daughters with little resources available at her disposal.

PRIYA DRESSES.jpgPRIYA DRESSES.jpg

Priya used magazines and plastic water bottles to design these dresses for Kopika and Tharnicaa during their school's Book Week in 2020. Source: SBS News / Rayane Tamer

Holstered up for viewers to marvel at is a set of pink dresses she made for her girls during their school's Book Week during their time in Perth's community detention in 2020.

According to Priya, "the girls felt like beautiful fairy princesses" when they donned their costumes made of magazines, straws and plastic bottles.

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They're items, Mr Connell said, that are normally thrown away by the general public. "But she's then created these works ... for the two girls to be able to give a resemblance of what childhood should be like," he said.

"The arts and crafts of the dresses that she made for the two girls ... with such limited resources is just amazing."

Two grey lace dresses holstered up on a coat hanger in an art galleryTwo grey lace dresses holstered up on a coat hanger in an art gallery

Another pair of matching dresses designed by Priya this year.

Biloela's cockatoo totem flies high

You'll find cockatoos everywhere in the town - painted on walls, thrust onto billboards, carried as plush toys by kids - but perhaps nowhere are they more saturated than in this art exhibition.

A series of crafted cockatoos are stuck on the wall with colourful drawings made by children. A series of crafted cockatoos are stuck on the wall with colourful drawings made by children.

Children also participated in the exhibition, drawing colourful posters and crafting cockatoos to be stuck on the wall. Source: SBS News / Rayane Tamer

The name Biloela translates to "cockatoo" in Gangulu, the Aboriginal language of the people in the community whose totem is the bird.
Three cockatoos on separate canvases each surrounded by bright colourful leaves. Three cockatoos on separate canvases each surrounded by bright colourful leaves.

Gwen Evetts had only five days to create these paintings, but pressured herself to finish them because she "believed in the family and believed in the campaign". Source: SBS News / Rayane Tamer

And since the Home To Bilo campaign was launched, the cockatoo acted, too, as a symbol of solidarity for the Nadesalingams. When local artist Gwen Evetts found out about the exhibition, she only had five days to conjure up an artwork — but she felt determined to contribute something to the cause. Interwoven among the three cockatoos she painted are vibrant foliage, colours inspired by the sarees worn by Priya, Kopika and Tharnicaa, she said. "I think what a wonderful job everyone's been doing with the campaigning and getting them here now. They just kept believing I thought, well, they believe in me to bring them some artwork," Gwen said.

"I believe in the family, I believe in the campaign."

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A montage of photographs spanning the life of Nadesalingam family and the breadth of support received from their community members are posted up on a wall in the exhibition. Source: SBS News

Among the other works is an interactive set of drawers called 'Dutton's Drawers of Inequities'. Inside each drawer includes small symbolic items of former home affairs minister Petter Dutton's hardline stance against refugees and asylum seekers entering Australia.

And Wiradjuri and Maranganji artist Wayne Martin who lives in Banana Shire donated his canvas painting, Ngurambang (country), which illustrates love, community, family and an everlasting connection to country.

A wooden four-set drawer chest is opened, with each drawer saying A wooden four-set drawer chest is opened, with each drawer saying

Jenny Mulcahy built 'Dutton's Drawers of Inequities' in 2021 to criticise the former home affairs minister Peter Dutton on his hardline policies against asylum seeker arrivals by boat. Source: SBS News / Rayane Tamer

An Aboriginal dot painting with black background and multicoloured dots in an intricate design is hung up on a canvas on the wall. An Aboriginal dot painting with black background and multicoloured dots in an intricate design is hung up on a canvas on the wall.

Wayne Martin's canvas painting, titled Ngurambang, represents family, country, community connection and love. Source: SBS News / Rayane Tamer

The Long Way Home will remain on display until next week, giving the Nadesalingam family time to settle in before they check out the community's creative collaboration.
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