Post by Mary Bosworth, Centre for Criminology, University of Oxford

On Friday, 3 March 2015, I spent the day in Campsfield House Immigration Removal Centre. As usual I was based in the art room, observing and participating in the day’s activities. While much of it was spent watching men dress up for comic relief day (‘make your face funny for money’), near the end of the day I fell into conversation with a man, called Jay, whose pastel drawings had appeared since I was last in the centre. In his sketches and paintings Jay  represents a number of familiar themes of detention: struggle, freedom, memory, pain and motion. In so doing, he visually captures the pain of forced immobility, and demonstrates the power of art in generating understanding of this form of confinement.

I asked Jay if I could write a post about his work for the blog and he generously agreed. He then took me around the room pointing to his artwork and explaining the messages he was trying to convey in them.

Oil pastel, parrot, by Jay, IRC Campsfield House. (Image: Immigration Detention Archive)
‘These pictures all come from my mind,’ he said. ‘That one,’ he gestured at the image below, which was pinned on the wall, ‘is about struggle. You have to be ready to fight to be free.’ The snake looms over the peacock, which is caught in its grip. Yet the bird has a sharp beak and is by no means defeated.
Oil pastel, peacock and snake, by Jay, IRC Campsfield House. (Image: Immigration Detention Archive)
Further along the wall, Jay gestured to another of his pastels.  ‘This one,' he said, 'this is like 3D. You see? The fish has some freedom, but it wants more. So it’s jumping out of the water.’ Uncomfortably large, relative to the small pool from which it has emerged, the gold fish is in motion, dripping with water, propelled into the air, as it looks for a bigger pond.
Oil pastel, fish, by Jay, IRC Campsfield House. (Image: Immigration Detention Archive)
While most of Jay's work was in oil pastels, he had completed one painting, which stood on the easel in the middle of the room.  A striking image of a veiled woman, it peered anxiously over the men at work.  Jay walked over to it.  ‘Did you see this painting?' he asked. 'This is the first painting I ever did. I don’t know why but I was thinking about that picture of that Afghan girl. Do you remember her? With the strange eyes? On that magazine? That’s her. I only saw that photo once, but it stuck in my mind.’
Acrylic paint, veiled Afghan woman, by Jay, IRC Campsfield House. (Image: Immigration Detention Archive)
A number of Jay’s sketches are quite disturbing. Taking up the familiar metaphor of the eye weeping blood, Jay offered two different versions of it. In the first, as in his image of the fish, the eyeball is bulging out of the picture. This grotesque and frightening image hints at untold trauma and rage.
Oil pastel, weeping eye, by Jay, IRC Campsfield House. (Image: Immigration Detention Archive)
In the second, flatter image, the eye is once again weeping blood. This time, however, the pupil includes a face at its centre.
Oil pastel, weeping eye, by Jay, IRC Campsfield House. (Image: Immigration Detention Archive)
Jay explained this picture to me. ‘You see this?’ he asked. ‘This is about detention. Everyone is crying here. Everyone is sad. Your eye is crying and when you look at someone else, you see in their eyes, that they are crying too. That is what I’m trying to show.’
Jay drawing 'Stop' at IRC Campsfield House. (Image: Immigration Detention Archive)
Just as I was about to leave for the day, Jay offered to make me a drawing to take back to Oxford to put in the physical collection of the Immigration Detention Archive. ‘I do this for you in five minutes,’ he promised, picking up charcoal confidently. ‘This picture, this is called “Stop.” It’s really just saying “stop” to all the bad things, you know, trafficking, detention. Bad things.’ Swiftly sketching a man, he then drew an oversized palm facing outwards, fingers outstretched.
"Stop" by Jay, IRC Campsfield House (Image: Immigration Detention Archive)
Although untrained and inexperienced in art, Jay was finding painting and drawing an unexpected pleasure in Campsfield House. The art room offered a means of expressing his (painful) emotions and (critical) beliefs. Painting and drawing were also new skills that he enjoyed exploring under guidance from the art teacher. Not everyone feels able to experiment with new practices. In an environment of low trust, it’s risky to show your emotions in public. To do so through an unfamiliar medium like art, must be even more challenging. Yet, for Jay at least, some paper and a set of oil pastels had proven to be crucial in enduring this difficult time of his life.

Read more about the Immigration Detention Archive, curated and organised by Mary. If you have items you’d like to contribute, please contact us via email or post.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

Bosworth, M. (2015) Sketching Detention: Jay’s Story. Available at: (Accessed [date]).