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Residency at Harmondsworth lifts and inspires on a cold, grey day

February 28, 2018

By Gini Simpson, Arts Development Manager

It was a cold and very grey February day when I first visited Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre. Based on the edge of the sprawling complex that is Heathrow Airport, the centre is tucked away on the side of a number of A roads. The Visitor’s Centre and first entrance point is a small prefab, which struggled to hold the volume of people waiting to visit those on the inside.

The entrance experience reminded me of the prison visiting, with a number of different doors, surveillance, restrictions and a tag staff team. However, the staff entrance, which I was directed to use, did include a number of colourful mounted photographs depicting Harmondsworth staff engaging with detainees through sports, computer based learning and other activities. Everyone in the photos was smiling.

Once on the inside the colour photographs continued, this time high energy depictions of sports people surrounding a courtyard / football pitch and a mural painted over raw metallic fencing which stood between the entrance(s) and the inside world of Harmondsworth. Although there were a number of locked doors, detainees seemed to be at liberty to wander, generally in small groups, around the centre. There was a lot of phone activity on low spec phones.

MID’s artist residency was based in the activities corridor, which included a music room, library, art room, learning spaces and what appeared to be an office where people could work on their cases. Shammi Pithia, the artist who has been commissioned to deliver the residency told me he had been going into IRCs for 10 years. He was incredibly comfortable and relaxed and had clearly developed meaningful relationships with both detainees and staff. The residency is a new model for MID and includes Shammi coming into Harmondsworth every Tuesday for an afternoon music making session and evening recording session and burning demo CDs for participants.

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