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

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

28th February 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.

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.

No music sessions in Harmondsworth are ever the same, detainees never know how long they will be there, in fact no one knows. Sometimes detainees feel too low to take part and medical ailments are part of daily life in the centre. None of this deters Shammi. He sets up his equipment, keeping the door open and playing tracks to encourage participants. When we arrive some people are already waiting and as the session went on many repeat performers joined in. Some of them had been practicing during the week, with the assistance of committed, inspirational centre staff, dedicated to trying to improve the detainee experience.

Wasting no time, Shammi got on with the job of engaging participants and making music with them. We had Rap, Ragga, Arabic singing and much more. Skilfully pulled together by Shammi into beautiful fusions of world music and burnt onto CD for participants to practice with during the week and play to others across the centre. Not only was the music intensely personal, often with stark lyrics referring to participants’ life experiences, it was also wistful, creative and sometimes humorous. Participants took us on journeys across the world, from Harmondsworth, to Algeria to Jamaica and back to Birmingham.

Not only was the music intensely personal, often with stark lyrics referring to participants’ life experiences, it was also wistful, creative and sometimes humorous. 

Some detainees told us they were too low to take part, but with Shammi’s encouragement and patience many of them did get involved and I observed incredible change, from disillusionment and misery to energy, laughter, creativity and the creation of music.

Sessions also provided ways for detainees to get to know each other, mainly and unsurprisingly they tend to stick in cultural groupings, Shammi’s residency gave people the chance to learn about each other through the world languages of music and a bit of dance! Through lyrics and through conversation detainees taught each other different languages, most people could speak at least 3 and many lots more. They worked together to make sound tracks through sharing dialogue and musicianship.

By the time I left Harmondsworth it was dark and the A roads were deserted. I felt like I’d been there for a very long time. As an arts practitioner and ‘professional’ I’m used to experiencing the power of the arts in different places, often difficult ones, but what I experienced in Harmondsworth will remain etched into my mind. The music, the dedication of the staff, the artistry and encouragement of Shammi and the musical contributions of the detainees were truly inspiring.

Some detainees told us they were too low to take part, but with Shammi’s encouragement and patience many of them did get involved and I observed incredible change, from disillusionment and misery to energy, laughter, creativity and the creation of music.