Portraying a Refugee Life


Nawal Khatiwada, 29, former Bhutanese refugee, new Australian resident and proud young western Sydney artist received Sydney’s first ‘People’s Choice’ Moving Art Award for his self portrait ‘My Life Begins’. Nawal’s self portrait connected with community voters requesting them to contribute their valuable Facebook votes.

Portrait of Nawal holding his award winning painting, self portrait, “my life begins’. This image joined others shortlisted from the ‘Me, Myself and I’ exhibition, painted on the side of public buses in Sydney for the ‘People’s Choice’ Moving Art Award

The side of the public buses is not a normal place to highlight local artists’ self-portraiture, or display for an annual art award, but it keeps things creative!

Welcoming 2013, twenty-one self-portraits have stared down on the public as part of Sydney’s first ‘People’s Choice’ Moving Art Award project.

The ‘People’s Choice’ award was organized by Nepean Arts and Design Centre (NADC). Self-portraits were shortlisted from the NADC ‘Me Myself and I’. Public buses in Sydney are now an exhibition space, displaying artworks printed to cover their sides and the public invited to vote for the event via Facebook.

Having the freedom to enter was a wonderful feeling alone for Nawal, growing up as a refugee in a country that did not accept or value his talents. Winning the award is an unexpected joy that will certainly open doors for him Australia.

“I am very happy that this achievement has brought me this success and happiness”, says Nawal.

 “My dream from my childhood is to be an artist. In Nepal, due to my refugee status, I did not get the chance to enter into some art competitions, because I would have to submit my citizenship.” Nawal was resettled in Australia in 2010 under Australia’s commitment to Bhutanese refugee resettlement from Nepal.

Of self-portraiture, he says it is a wonderful opportunity for him to express his feelings and reactions to his life.

Two very different self-portraits of Nawal were included in the NADC exhibition ‘Me Myself and I’ that displayed around 202 shortlisted pieces from local artists.

Nawal, in Sydney, with some of his paintings

Nawal says that the first was a self-portrait drawn to reflect his background, while the piece chosen for the Moving Art Award explores his feelings about his initial days in Australia.

Of his early days in Australia, he describes himself as “innocent” and “unknown” but also “frustrated”.

“I was worried about my future, but still I was thinking that Australia is the most beautiful and the happiest country I have known. I was frustrated because I was still trying to understand Australia.”

If he were to draw a third self-portrait now what would be the difference?

“Good question” he replies and thinks for a moment.

“If I create my self-portrait now, it will not be empty, or innocent and unknown; it will be confident and you will see it in my eyes” says Nawal.

There is a subtle beauty in the Nepali girls’ gaze, unaware of the harsh challenges that their futures hold. Their mannerisms reflect the nature that has been taught to them – to be modest, self-conscious, subservient. They are Hindu girls; innocent because they are still living in a child’s world, protected by the boundaries of the camp and the security of girlhood. They are sheltered from the reality of being both a refugee and a wife: Artist statement

Nawal says that he draws the issues and emotions for his subjects from his own background.

In his other displayed artwork, Nawal says he has explored issues close to his own background. ‘She is my sister’ and ‘mother and child’ are large paintings. Both paintings received student art awards.

In ‘she is my sister’ Nawal looks at young Nepali girls’ responsibilities caring for their younger siblings at the expense of their own education and opportunities; in ‘mother and child’, he is interested in the way that there can be happiness amidst abject poverty, for people “do not know the better life, and because of that they are happy”.

Three dry point intaglios are also on display: “Perception II”, “Perception IV” and “Refugee” all look at growing up in the refugee camp, but also entertain specific issues. In Perception II, he further explores the life of young Hindu Nepali girlhood before they enter the reality of “being a refugee and a wife. “Perception IV” and “Refugee” look at refugee children.

Nawal’s self portrait, ‘My Life Begins’ is on display at the Penrith Regional Gallery and the Lewers Bequest from the 21st of February until the 10th of March. The painted buses service the Penrith, Mt Druitt, the Hills and Blacktown route.

Nawal’s other artworks are currently on display as part of the Student Art Awards at the Trapezium Gallery (Nepean Arts and Design Centre in Kingswood, Western Sydney).

[The writer has been helping resettled Bhutanese in Tasmania in her various capacities as a volunteer since 2008. All pictures used are by the author who can be contacted at [email protected].]

Author’s Personal Note
In 2008, the first group of Bhutanese refugee’s arrived in my homes state, Tasmania. I was one of the initial volunteers in Launceston who worked with individual families over their first six months in Australia. In 2010 and 2011 in conjunction with studies to complete my Masters of Journalism at UTAS, I worked closely with, in particular the Southern Tasmanian Bhutanese Community to on a number of written features and photographic essays. A few years ago, I spent a month in eastern Nepal where I stayed in the huts of relatives of Bhutanese refugee friends I have made through volunteer work in Australia. Subsequently, I met with many families and conducted any number of interviews. I stayed with Nawal’s family in camp in Nepal. Today although too many families have arrived for me to recognize names and faces, I still maintain close contact with the families I initially met and some I have had the joy of meeting along the way, both in Tasmania, on the mainland Australia and in east Nepal. I have since returned twice to the camps in east Nepal to visit friends. I look forward to working on future projects with this community and being around to share and rejoice in their achievements in Australia. 


  1. Hats off to you Mr. Nawal Khatiwada. You are one out of thousand Bhutanese Refugee who can represent that talents can be any where- In a refugee’s hut, in a poor parents’ son, in middle of difficulties.

    keep up our hidden history alive, make our story global through your nature given arts. Once again hats off !

  2. What a nice story ! This is how journalists should write. BNS has started publishing articles by foreigners, and this is a great deal. Kudos BNS team. You have been working smartly. Can’t wait to read another piece from Jenny.

  3. The artist, definitely is a rising talent. Hope you will make your way further are far. The author of this article deserves appreciation for pinning down to a Bhutanese youth.

    Kiran (Rasaily) attempted to teach me wet-painting while studying in Shemgang. However, I badly failed to progress. Also, therefore my appreciations and admirations for art!

    Lakshmi Prasad Dhakal

  4. Thanks to everyone.
    It is indeed a happy moment having achieved this success. Still I have miles to go….
    Therefore I look forward to working in more projects in the future and I hope to continue to feel your support and encouragement.
    Nawal Khatiwada

  5. Bhai
    I had sensed your future from your early childhood. Your zest and labor were rigid enough to take you to this successful culmination. Among the artistic stars of the exhiled Bhutanese history, you are the KING!
    I wish you and your prosperous future!
    Pashupati Timsina

  6. Thanks to everyone.
    Each of your comment is to betoken for me to explore.
    I nod my head in agreement that you all are my all I have so, your encouragement is precious to preserve………………….
    Well, please do share on me your rational thoughts if you are in any concept, I would display them on my artworks.