Healing Through Tapestry – Stories of New Beginnings at the Refugee Arts Festival

Do you know the story behind the Tapestry Couch?

Every year, thousands of refugees flee to Australia to find a new home with their families. They bring with them inspiring stories of resilience, joy, and friendship as they build new relationships and gain experiences in communities across Australia. In the past year, these stories have found a permanent home in the Tapestry Couch – a social design project led by Tasman Munro, textile artist Jane Theau, and expert tapestry artist Sayd Shah Mahmood.

In the Friendship Garden of the Auburn Community in West Sydney, over 200 refugees and asylum seekers sat down together to learn tapestry weaving techniques and woodworking every two weeks. Guided by Tasman, Jane and Sayd, the workshops gave the community an avenue to exchange stories, form friendships, as well as heal through the art of tapestry.

After an entire year, the Tapestry Couch was completed and its design portrayed a beautiful image of harmony handcrafted by everyone in the community. In this feature, we speak to Tasman Munro about the Tapestry Couch as he shares with us its journey to completion over the past year.

What’s your background? 

I have a background in woodworking and a degree in Industrial Design, however my passion is Social Design – working on collaborative projects with communities that are geared towards generating positive social growth.

How did you get into facilitating the Tapestry Couch? 

I was running a woodworking workshop for the refugee community in Auburn last year when Sayd walked in with a trolley filled with his incredible tapestries. Sayd and Jane Theau had just started teaching tapestry to the same community, so I suggested a collaboration which brought our worlds together.

What mediums do you like to work in?

When I’m making myself, I’m usually working in recycled timber, I love collaging interesting pieces together. I’ve also just started playing around with printing my illustrations onto ply, which is fun! But within larger spatial design projects I’m specifying a whole range of other materials.

Did the project evolve much from its original concept?

Absolutely. It was a project that was intended to be co-created with the community. I had a rough image in my head of what it could look like but it was impossible to know exactly what it was going to look like. As stories arose we wove them into the image, and at the end we designed and built the couch around the tapestry. During the project we were also donated some lovely recycled Oregon which we used for the frame, so it was really a process of taking things as they came.

What do you want people to remember from the Tapestry Couch?

The intention of the project is to explore this idea of “re-authoring” stories. Meaning that there are often dominant stories that get created around groups of people and that this only represents a single story. This project offers people an opportunity to connect with stories about the refugee community which are outside the dominant stories we hear in the media. Although they are small, they are empowering stories of an incredibly creative community, making together and sharing their experiences of friendship and healing in Western Sydney.

Where do you get your inspiration from?

By spending time with community, through long periods of sitting, talking and making together. The longer you spend with people, the more inspired and connected everyone becomes to the piece or space you are designing. That, and Instagram!

(image courtesy of Amy Piddington)
(image courtesy of Amy Piddington)

What challenges have you encountered along the way with the Tapestry Couch project?

The biggest challenge was finding the patience to work with such a slow process. It was a very large piece and the punch needling technique is slow at the best of times, however each fortnight most of the people involved were new, so we had to teach them from scratch. It was slow going, but this was also the beauty of it all, the process physically couldn’t have been completed any faster, so it demanded us to sit together for longer periods of time. 

(image courtesy of Amy Piddington)

As part of Tasman’s PhD, the project also explores Narrative Therapy which aims to shift disempowering stories into empowering experiences by engaging in meaningful conversations through working together for a period of time. The illustrative tapestry features a combination of positive experiences the community has shared through their stay in The Friendship Garden.

What do you have planned for the Tapestry Couch in the future?

There aren’t any plans to make another couch like this, it was a one off special project that suited the context and people involved. It’s going to live at the entrance to the Auburn Community Center, with the people who shared their stories and contributed to its making. Jane is about to start making a rug with the same community, so I look forward to keeping involved in that.

Tasman Munro’s Workshop

What are you working on next?

There are a range of projects coming up, I’m currently working at Designing Out Crime Research Centre doing design research into improving the experience for people appearing in court through video link from prison. I’ve also just started working with a Barkindji men’s group in Wilcannia trying to develop ideas for a social centre to support their community initiatives.

Tasman Munro’s Home
Tasman Munro’s Living Room Featuring a Tapestry Collection

What’s your personal home interior style? 

I live in a creative warehouse with a bunch of other legends. We have spent the past five years converting a factory into an arts space and adult cubbyhouse. Everything is recycled and pieced together as an artwork in itself. We also have a tapestry collection above our couch which I think may have subconsciously sparked the idea for this project.

Currently, the Tapestry Couch is exhibited at the Singular/ Plural Art Exhibition at the New Beginnings Festival which features works from different artists from both refugee and non-refugee communities. You can learn more about the festival here.

If you enjoyed this feature, don’t forget to check out our interview with UK-based gallery as they talk about bringing Australian Aboriginal Art into interiors.

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Project: Tapestry Couch

Project Facilitators: Tasman Munro, Jane Theau, Sayd Shah Mahmood

Host: Settlement Services International

Photos: Tasman Munro


*This interview has been edited for clarity and length