Telling Tales, a new exhibition at the MCA, collates the artworks of marginalised immigrant communities from across the world, including a selection of sketches, zines and watercolours created by asylum seekers and refugees within western Sydney’s Villawood Immigration Detention Centre.

Since 2010, for a few hours each fortnight, the visitors area at Villawood becomes an informal art workshop led by the not-for-profit Refugee Art Project. Safdar Ahmed, an artist and academic at the University of Sydney, founded the project after becoming frustrated while volunteering at the detention centre.

“It started from a really simple premise,” says Ahmed. “Wouldn’t it be good to visit the Villawood Detention Centre and actually do something with the people who are there, rather than just go in and talk to people and walk out again, feeling sort of helpless?” he says.

“So I thought, given my background in fine arts, I should start up an art workshop and see if anybody wanted to draw with me.”

And they did. Over the past six years, the project has worked with refugees and asylum seekers to create collaborative zines and artworks. It also has a warehouse space in Parramatta, where it runs a fortnightly art workshop for women who have been refugees.

Public exhibitions were not Ahmed’s original goal, but it soon became apparent that these sketches and paintings were a rare opportunity to challenge some of the misconceptions regarding refugees. Within Australia, asylum seekers loom as shadowy and ominous figures, spoken of and over but never heard. “Detention centres are so restrictive that one often rarely hears refugee voices,” says Ahmed.

When asked, Ahmed carefully describes his own relationship with Villawood as “strained”. After the project’s first exhibition in 2011 at Mori Gallery, he and other project members had their volunteer contracts revoked. Ahmed and the project continue to visit informally, although they are limited with what they can do. “It’s difficult to give [detainees] art materials because the restrictions are so tight,” says Ahmed. “Pencil sharpeners were a problem. I couldn’t bring turpentine [found in most oil paints] because it’s flammable; I had to bring linseed oil instead in a small plastic container, as opposed to a glass jar.”

One anonymous Burmese artist improvised with ground coffee to create water paints when he couldn’t access the project’s supplies. The hues of brown give a pointed monochrome to the paintings, where even the burning buildings of an unknown town or Villawood’s enclosed gardens remain hazy and muted.

The project’s works are a reminder of facts often forgotten, such as who seeks asylum, and why. Tamil refugees’ paintings touch on the Sri Lankan war of 2009; Iranians reflect on the government’s persecution and political repression; and drawings from Hazara Afghanis, such as Haidir Ali, detail scenes of persecution they face from the Taliban.

“It was language,” says Ali, whose drawings and comics feature in Telling Tales. “A lot of people couldn’t even speak English, but they could draw. They would draw something and say this is what I’ve been through, this is me.”

Ali left Afghanistan when he was nine, seeking asylum with his family. After his temporary UK visa expired, Ali sought asylum in Australia, arriving by plane in his mid-20s.

He was released from Villawood in August 2013, after roughly a year of detention. The project helped take his mind off his bridging-visa application, since such applications are processed with no indication at all of when (or whether) they will be approved.

“Art in detention is therapeutic. I was very lucky in my case; I got released in one year. There are people who have been there for five or six years.”

Since being released, Ali hasn’t kept up with drawing. He says it’s a shame, but he’s been too busy catching up with the rest of the world, working. Ahmed says that’s pretty normal – many refugees, when settled, lose interest in creating art and focus instead on creating a life for themselves.

Select works from the Refugee Art Project are showing as part of Telling Tales, a free exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art on now until Sunday October 9. For more information or to donate to the Refugee Art Project, visit their website.

The Refugee Art Project will also be at the MCA Zine Fair this Sunday June 12, 10am-6pm.