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Drawn from a troubled journey

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See article in its original context here by Kath Dolan for The Age.

For those of us who associate Philip Ruddock with the hard-line immigration policies of the Howard government, it’s hard to picture Australia’s former immigration minister talent-spotting Ethiopian artist Sutueal Bekele Althe in a United Nations refugee camp in the north of Kenya in the late 1990s, suggesting a move to Australia and, within three months, arranging for his safe passage to these shores.

”I never planned to go anywhere,” Sutueal says, now a 39-year-old father of four living in Hoppers Crossing. Having fled Ethiopia’s protracted civil war in 1992 as a lone 16-year-old art student and made it to a UN refugee camp over the border in neighbouring Kenya, Sutueal had already been the beneficiary of one very lucky break.

Not long after his arrival, without access to art materials, he began scavenging in the surrounding bush for soft wood and stone to carve. His artistry was quickly recognised by UN staff, who transferred him to Nairobi to finish his fine art studies, learn English and resume exhibiting the traditional Ethiopian realist paintings he first showed publically at the age of 15.

”I’ve had several lucky moments in my life,” he says. ”That’s just one of them.”

By the time he met Ruddock, Sutueal had been travelling throughout the region for several years as an art teacher in refugee camps. They were tough places but provided a measure of artistic freedom via expense-free living and studio space.

”Philip Ruddock asked me … ‘How long have you been living here?”’ Sutueal says. ”He said, ‘It’s such a long time for a young person like you to waste your life here when you could do more with your art’. For me at that time I knew nothing about Australia. He was surrounded by many United Nations delegates and Kenyan ministers. I liked his approach, it was really open and simple and as an artist, that’s my personality as well.


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