Writing on drawing: the life class in detention: a triptych

Margaret Evaline Mayhew, Azizeh Kh. Astaneh, Sririhan Ganeshan

This is a refracted view of an intersection between languages and identities, and an extraordinary project that started in a refugee detention centre in Melbourne last year. A group of volunteers (including me) ran a life-drawing class (with a clothed model).

These are words from between, and worlds that move and mingle people and places and times, and the constant refraction of liminality that exceeds and defies power, even in its most brutal form.

I want to be careful of not wrapping these words in my language around the polyphonic, multilingual words, ideas and explosive firecracker fuel of brilliance from the other writers, who translated their words, thinking and breathing between English, Perglish, Tamilish, breaking through the desperation of marginal existence, bare life and PTSD in detention, until finally free (Sri was released in January), flung into the far corners of Melbourne.

These are grabbing words embedded in handshakes and hugs and wiping away tears, and charcoal, zorhal, kari, and tea, tenir, chai, and security doors, and trains, and rooms, and fleeting spaces, and kids and constant distraction, and facebook, and viber and text messages. Identity labels seem absurd here; it is absurd to weigh these words down with labels like ‘lesbian’ or ‘boat person’. Queerness and asylum and refuge flow and the trauma of boats, of fleeing and of detention flow through the impressions, the spaces and matter of watching, witnessing and imagining and remembering.


Art; Creativity; Difference

Full text

This is a refracted view of an intersection between languages and identities, and a reflection of an extraordinary project that started in a refugee detention centre in Melbourne in 2013, where a group of volunteers (myself included) ran a life-drawing class. Unlike most life drawing classes, the model was clothed, and yet, it still seemed such an astonishing event, that I feel a little bit like Michael Taussig in declaring “I swear I saw this,” (the title of his 2011 book on drawing and ethnography), and including drawings as well as words.


This piece started as an epilogue to a book that I am writing about life drawing. I am an artist, an ex-model, and an academic ‘expert’ on drawing and cultural studies, spectatorship and subjectivity. And yet a single voice is not sufficient to represent this experience of holding a life drawing class in a detention centre, with participants who are lampooned by and silenced in the mainstream media. By not allowing for the articulate and intelligent voices of refugees in detention, then this becomes an account by a voice from above; of the academic expert, or the non-refugee volunteer. I am more interested in using academic writing to open up spaces for the voices of the silent refugees in detention, and the largely invisible ex-detainees who are living in Australia, trying to move on from the trauma of mandatory detention and exile and also find a place in our society where they exist as more than ‘boat people’.

This article is less ‘writing from below’ than words from between, and worlds that move and mingle people and places and times, and the constant refraction of liminality that exceeds and defies power, even in its most brutal form.  These are grabbing words embedded in handshakes and hugs and wiping away tears, and charcoal, zorhal, kari, and tea, tenir, chai, and security doors, and trains, and rooms, and fleeting spaces, and kids and constant distraction, and Facebook, and Viber and text messages.

This is an amalgam of three accounts by three participants: Azizeh, Sri and myself. Although I provide introductions to the sections from the other to writers, I want to be careful of not wrapping these words in my language around the polyphonic, multilingual words, ideas and explosive firecracker fuel of brilliance from the other writers, who translated their words, thinking and breathing between English, Perglish, Tamilish, breaking through the desperation of marginal existence, bare life and post traumatic stress disorder in detention, until finally flung free into the far corners of Melbourne (Azizeh was released in February 2013 and Sri was released in January 2015) .

Azizeh arrived in Australia with fluent English, and a background in publishing art reviews in Iran. I cannot know how fluent she is in Persian (also called Farsi), however I have witnessed her quicksilver segues between Farsi and English as she interprets spoken conversations, and translates written exchanges on social media. Her account that follows is a first person memoir of her experience as a detainee, and recent arrival from Iran, attending a life drawing class inside the detention centre. One year after her release, Azizeh finds her memories are refracted through her subsequent experiences. Her narrative shifts deliberately between the past tense of recounting the life class and returning to an immediate sense of a previous moment as immanent; fracturing the time of limbo between a previous life, and one that is yet to begin. As she says ‘My memory has been almost become blurry due to a recent MS diagnosis which happened after the Detention Centre experience’, so what she retains, are crystalline shards, ‘those brightest outstanding memories of Friday Art Classes’.


I was standing behind the glass door of the visit room waiting for the door to open when I saw them, the artists, inside the area moving the tables and chairs; transforming that visit area into an art class.  My heart was pounding in my chest. I knew I was walking into an art class though I wasn’t an artist before. I’d never been one.

She opened the door with that bright smile of hers and introduced herself. So far I can remember she said a few words in Farsi – my language – and the conversation began and it went on and on and on. She simply broke a barrier and made everything flow even though she knew only twenty words – counting from one to twenty.

It was my first official encounter with people whom I referred to as “normal people”. I was feeling abnormal as a “detainee” who only met “officers” and other “immigration staff”, but that normal people made me feel being normal as well. Their reality was an undiscovered normality yet so familiar. They were not being structured “to be” the way they were. How I can picture this paradox for you?


I want to make it for you as simple as I can. I want to share with you what drawing did for me at that time of hazy life.


I was looking at her while they were talking. That cheerful young girl. She was joking, smiling, and laughing. So comfortable and real yet awkward at a same time. Her motions became slow and delicate on my eye. I could see light and air were playing softly around her presence. So sweet. The model. Molly.

A large piece of paper. A blank one on a table as big as I was free enough to reach its every corner. My large piece of blank paper. Not only that, but sticks of charcoal in both my hands.

The model was ready to pose when the teacher started to explain everyone about the instructions. “Look at the model and her pose; then draw what you feel. Draw that expression which comes from looking at the model’s gesture.” I heard what she said in English, she asked me to interpret it for everyone, the instruction went through my ears into my brain and started to digest there, and words transformed into a conception and its cognition came out of my mouth in Farsi sounds. “Look at the model and her pose; then draw what you feel. Draw that expression which comes from looking at model’s gesture.”

Molly started to pose. My head went: What to do? What to do? What to do? I started to pay attention to her body curves and edges. I looked at others. Lots of shades and lights were on their drawing pads.

The teacher started to explain to us again, “it is all about how to free your mind” she said. It felt like another explosion in my head. ‘Freedom of the mind’, What can it be like? No real instruction? No do or don’t? No logic mathematical traditional cultural academic instructions!? The teacher could see error messages on every face looking at her, since she added up some more help. “Follow the lines around model’s shape, don’t look back at your drawing pads, move your eyes on the lines and draw what you see without looking back at your drawing page”, she said. I started to look at Molly and moving my charcoal on paper as my eyes were slipping on her curves and edges. She changed to a new pose every two minutes. I finished the first drawing.  She changed again. I looked for a new piece of paper. I found one. Again she changed. There was no time to find another piece of paper and replace it. I stayed on the same pad. She posed and posed and posed. That charcoal moved all over the page. Small, big, shapeless, lines, shades. My eyes were rolling over the model and the charcoal in my hand was rocking over the sheet. Finished. Eventually I looked back at what I had done. So many lines and shades. Shapeless, yet I could see Molly and her poses through every shapeless line. They started to walk around and looking at each of our drawings. Then came new instructions. “Look at the model and draw everything you see except her.” She said. How amazingly everything changed in my eyes at that moment. I could see lines and objects that I hadn’t seen before. The visiting area wasn’t the same as it was before. I could see everything in a very new way. I could see everything in a very different way. I could change what I was looking at. At that moment something marvellous was being born. I could hear a softly playing sound of discovering a new world within me. I walked into a wonderland where everything is made of marvels. I left my mental bounded dimensions inside that little shelter of an Art Critic, where I used to spend my time looking at Modern Art from behind a window of an ignorant state where I was sitting only as an observer. I had lack of emotions and feelings upon the meaning of Modern Art. It is beyond infinity. An artist ‘brings’ and delivers concepts into ‘being’. I think at that day I acknowledged what art means and who is an artist. I could see the nation of art through the art teacher; Margaret.


Returning to zero. The mess hall (where lunch is served) closes at 1:30 pm. It’s about 12:45 pm. We start to pack and store everything in small cupboards of the visits room. I look at my charcoal drawings. How much I love them! They only make sense to me. Looking at my charcoal drawings, I see two hours of my life in them. I see my discoveries. I see my achievement. It reminds me of my life


achievements. It reminds me of my vacuous degree that I spent more than four years of my precious life to achieve. It reminds me of my life achievements that I left behind. The “I” who could not keep my company. The clock is ticking. I feel hungry. The mess hall closes at 1:30 pm. I will not get lunch. Roya can’t take food out from the Mess for me. It is forbidden. It is against the rules. It is against the Detention Centre’s rules. I am in Detention Centre. I am no one but a Detainee. I am no longer even a ‘client’; I am a ‘detainee’. I have no name. I am a number. A boat number. A code. I lost my identical existence behind. No, “I” did not lose it. It has been taken away from me. I am waking up slowly. I have been always here and somewhere else. Somewhere behind the sky. Somewhere beyond the sky with my beliefs. I touch my drawings. The charcoal is all over my hands. I rub my palms all over the paper. I’m telling Margaret “I don’t take my drawings with me. Thank you.” I do not take anything with me anymore. I have my drawings all over my hands. My paper is messy, hazy and black. I wash my hands. My achievement goes away in a moment or so. They are closing the mess hall. I need to eat. I have to stay alive.


Margaret gave us drawing books, charcoals, pencils, etc. Thinking of the next Friday Art Class, I grab the book and a pencil plus a rubber, walking around the camp, looking for someone to draw. There are two officers watching over detainees in the lounge room. One is almost sleep on a couch. I start to draw him. He moves. I draw him again. He walks. I draw his walking. There is a lady sitting on a chair, knitting. I draw all of her friends around her – even that lady who is smiling at me and I haven’t met her before – but her. There is a child screaming out loud. The child is angry, confused and bored. I draw its confusion flow into the air. Another week passed by. I have my drawings with me to show Margaret. They are here waiting for us again. With their shining smiles, with that incredible spirit made of light. I am no longer walking into the visit room. Margaret opens the door. I am walking into the wonderland.


It is October 2013. I am in a room with the familiar chorus of charcoal on paper, surrounded by drawers, and I catch glimpses of the sketches made in a variety of styles and approaches. This time I am clothed with a lanyard tagged with a card saying ‘V’. The model is also clothed – in leggings and a fitted top.

The model, Molly, is an art student who has visited and volunteered at the centre for two years. She and I give instructions – I demonstrate gesture drawing with some scribbles, and one young woman (Azizeh) translates into Farsi. Most of the drawers are Iranian and they have very little English. Drawers who don’t comprehend either English or Farsi, look and just draw the model, or draw from their imagination, as they wish.


In this environment the mixtures of looks and gestures and encounters swirls like a maelstrom of possibilities, far beyond what the stilted language of a directed drawing program could provide.

The class starts at 10am, but we are frequently called to the glass security doors, to allow more participants to enter, smiling nervously as we coax them with smiles and gestures and offerings of charcoal. All of the volunteers have travelled here, to Broadmeadows, by public transport. It’s Melbourne Cup season and all of the trains in Melbourne’s northwest have had horrible delays. I waited forty minutes for a train at peak hour, and have arrived late, in a flap, agitated and enraged by poor services. None of the participants have faced our minor trials of public transport, as they are residents, also known as ‘clients’, ‘detainees’, or according to the immigration minister ‘illegals’. And yet, in a climate of such expensive officious cruelty, small miracles like this art class exist; mostly aided by kind, imaginative staff members at the detention centre, and the dedication, generosity and persistence of visitors.

My friend Sri, a journalist a few years younger than me wanders in with his coffee. He greets us and giggles, demures at taking a stick of charcoal and watches, transfixed. He then bids farewell, saying in broken English that he has to write about this, this group. He has the words in him now and he has to write. He will write in Tamil, and then wait for a translation into words that I and other visitors can read, and submit to outside journals. He’s been incarcerated for five years, and is exhausted with the endless appeals and dashed hopes of release, and yet cautious enough to only publish under a pseudonym.  His account of the class, of the mental flights between viewing a model in Melbourne, dashed through with the hauntology of other young women’s bodies; bombed, mutilated, shatters the circumscribing line of drawing as a continuous present, evoking the constant flits of post-trauma, remembered trauma, current trauma, imagined trauma, current pleasure, and desire lines towards possible, past or present futures.

Flitting between the immediate and impossible present of sight, touch and imagination, his words make me cry and reduce me to fleeting grabs between words and marks, which I may sit down and transcribe into a drawing…. Because images seem to fill these gaps between words and languages where there are too many emotions, and reciprocity seems to be beyond the reach of anything that words could touch.

One of the drawers comes early and then leaves early to join the Muslim prayer session at lunchtime. He calls me Doctor and insists jokingly that I call him “Mr Salami” and says he wants to learn how to make better cartoons or what sounds like ‘carikador’ in Farsi. He tells me the ideas of what he wants to draw, and executes perfect pictorial snapshots of the model, the couch and her clothes. Horrible train delays and end of semester marking mean that I’m not as patient and relaxed as I wish I was, and I shift distractedly between delight at the drawings, my own agitation, and the burden of utter shame and outrage at the barriers between this class, and the outside world of suburban Melbourne.

I mutter a complaint about the price of something, and Mr. Salami says, “Every thing is expensive in this country”. I agree, “yes”. He continues, “everything is expensive except asylum seekers. We are cheap.” I wince inside, thinking of the dirty game called ‘political football’ played by the mass media and parliamentarians. I look at him and say, “You are more precious than gold”, blinking away tears as I rummage in my bag for charcoal and rubbers, as I and the other volunteer distribute paper and places to a growing crowd of drawers.

We have started this class outside of the normal afternoon visiting hours because of the increasing numbers of children, who are an intense disruptive presence out of the hours when they aren’t bussed to nearby schools. This is meant to be a time when the adults, especially the long-term detainees, can be free and become absorbed in a creative activity. And yet some mothers bring their little ones, who sit beside them quietly drawing. Today is a little different. There are a few new people, garbed in the familiar blue tracksuit that is standard issue in the centres. After a week, some new street clothes usually make their way to detainees, donated by volunteers and distributed through a network of visitors and longer term detainees, like my friend, the journalist; who is apparently a threat to national security if he is released.

A middle-aged man comes in, and introduces himself with a handshake. He arrived at the centre a few days ago, and was on a boat not long before. A little while later he is joined by his son, who is about ten years old, and appears to be developmentally disabled, which may explain why he is hasn’t been bussed to a local school with the other kids. The boy is demanding, of the attention of the security guard stationed to supervise this class, as well as the volunteers. He hails us all with  “Officer! Officer”, as he grabs our sleeve, showing a drawing, or grabbing some paper and pointing at his chest, nodding and smiling. I bristle with annoyance, replying that “No! I’m not officer! I’m Margaret!”, then realise that it’s the only English word he knows. I die, just a little on the inside, realising my implication with this, white skin, bossy manner, insistent smilings of happy face coercion into a collective activity of people who have very little choice about where they are right now.

Volunteering inside a detention centre is an awkward, discomforting process, that lies somewhere between the confining rehearsal of charity, and the creation of the desperately miraculous. I find myself struggling not to fall into the familiar psychological traps of Christian charity, which embeds a disturbing power difference where one person is seen as the actor, and giver, and one person is seen as a passive recipient of the actions or gifts. I find myself playing an awkward two-faced game of negotiating the role of the art class as an institutionally sanctioned activity; legitimising the humanitarian public relations spin of the private company that runs the detention centre, with my moral horror that such an institution exists in a the first place. I find the process of being drawn into the detention centres; and being drawn into a field of remarkable and astonishing social relationships with detainees, visitors and officers, lies far beyond my capacities to mark such exchange with the graphite, charcoal, watercolours and pastels that I bring with me into the centre.

These drawing spaces embody a topology that seems a world away from the flip side of the sketches I have done at protests outside this detention centre and others. And yet both spaces are intimately linked, through the pencils used, the hands and bodies and eyes that move along and through the internal boundaries of state exclusion. We aren’t allowed to bring cameras, phones or electronic recording devices into the centre, and so drawing becomes the only means of generating a representation. The role of drawing as bearing witness becomes more diffuse, and yet even more critical than my earlier attempts of sketching detention centres from the outside.


I was scared that digital photography would not preserve an adequate memory of what we witnessed during the protests rallies outside of detention centres in the desert. Ten years ago, protesters wrote  ‘Azadi’ on balloons that we tried to send over the border fences to reach the Afghani and Iraqi detainees, as helicopters drowned out our shouts. I drew the scenes of riot cops arresting protesters for carrying balloons in the desert, because I wanted them to remain indelible.  Six months ago I found myself screaming what a Google search on someone’s phone revealed as Tamil word for Freedom (‘Cutantiram’ சுதந்திரம்) in the dark with a crowd of protesters, locked out of the same centre where I had been welcomed two weeks earlier. The voices of our hunger-striking friends inside came back, chanting “freedom” in chorus, and my eyes were filled with tears and my hands shook too much to draw, and it was too dark to take any photographs, so this scene remains unseen. Choking emotion of shouted words crossing a fence reduced visual representation to an illegible scrawl, and my friends have to trust my verbal testimony that I was there on the outside during this awful heartbreaking time when I did not and could not visit them.

Passing from the outside to the inside, language and drawing both shift. Inside the centre we exchange words in different languages; mainly ‘thank you’ ‘hello’, ‘how are you?’, ‘good’ but never ‘Freedom’. This word remains silent and constant as a heartbeat between the handshakes, hugs, and the flitting glimpses into each others’ eyes. Passing into the sanctioned space of visiting involves a certain amount of discretion. Art is ‘free’, we say. Politics is ostensibly smothered beneath the euphemisms of art as therapy, self-expression, even self-improvement.

Part of me feels hopelessly absurd, proffering the rudimentary skills from my art training in western modernist art to people educated in visual traditions spanning millennia. I don’t know what else to offer to people in a hopeless situation that the regular practice of hope as a micropolitics of solidarity. The ‘bare life’ conditions to which detainees are reduced (they are fed, and housed and clothed, but isolated and excluded from social participation) means that the most banal acts create a form of connection and sociality that is profoundly powerful.  The skill of the Iranian and Tamil participants in perfectly copying images from magazines, or from the art books we bring, using cheap and poor quality materials is remarkable. Some of the women, housed on camp cots in demountable shacks at the rear of the centre spend most of the time between our weekly classes drawing and sketching by daylight, or by the floodlit exterior lights during the night. Drawing as bearing witness becomes far less about representing the conditions of detention, than about the continuous practice of moving eyes and minds and marks and materials; reciting the imagined connections of hope and nostalgia and longing, and drawing lines between our stumbling attempts to communicate in words. Lines and colours work as ripples linking the plonking river rocks of words as we negotiate the abyss of cultural and social difference. They surround and enfold and fan out from the spaces of contact and connection, embedding hope and imagination as part of the practice of bearing the unbearable, with dignity and agency.

The art classes provide a drawing space of a form of community and encounter that is much harder to negotiate when people are released from detention. It is not only because ex-detainees are generally housed in far flung edges of the metropolis, dependent on erratic public transport on subsistent allowances (and prohibited from seeking work). Even among the forcibly unemployed, recreation occupies an entirely different modality; people are keen to learn English (for skills), or to socialise in familiar languages, creating familiar cultural surrounds. The power difference embedded in our volunteer role of activity provider within detention limits our capacity to gather a community of participants from a dispersed and culturally diverse population of newly arrived migrants. Once released from the bare life conditions of detention, people need to exercise their capacities for self-determination, within communities of shared language and experience. It is here that the coercive conditions by which our idealistic gathering of art class participants within an institution reach their limit. Our power, even as socially progressive idealistic volunteers, is dependent on the very institution that we politically oppose. Friends from detention remain as friends outside detention, but less of them come to the monthly workshops, and even fewer of them spend time marking art together; we meet up and talk or share meals, liking each others’ photos on Facebook, sending texts, and sharing the banal sociality of freedom. Words are the main drawing force, words that move among and around people, across the networks of volunteer groups, community sector agencies (lawyers, education providers, etc.), back into detention when returning to meet friends still inside, or pass on words of regard to the kind and caring officers that do work there.

However today words fall away, and the familiar hush and scrape of charcoal on paper take over, along with occasional gesture and mutter for ‘paper’, ‘eraser’, ‘charcoal’ ‘pencil’. What is remarkable is how familiar initial practices of rapid sketching feels. These consist of one or two minute poses. I rely heavily on the few English speaking drawers to translate my words for the other participants.  Translating Nicolaides’ words on ‘gesture drawing’ into a language I don’t speak is difficult (Nicolaides, 1969). Instead I use the analogy of dancing as it is an experience I’ve shared with detainees during monthly ‘harmony day’ concerts; if we hear music and someone asks us to get up and dance, we don’t think about where to put our arms or look at our feet, but we trust that they will move with us. I demonstrate a gestural scribble and watch how everyone follows…. Initially there is a lot of pointing and smiling and gesturing; a lot of nodding and shaking of heads. There’s a lot of movement and muttering around the model as she sits, wondering aloud if anyone is drawing her. I report that they do; some standing, some sitting, some looking intently, but most unable to meet her eyes for the sustained duration of the pose.

And yet, once people are seated, settled, and just looking and drawing then something else takes over. It is a very familiar feeling of focussed collective absorption, it is the ‘thing that just lifts’ that the subjects I interviewed for my thesis on life drawing described. Here the model is not nude, but she is still posing, and people are watching and drawing with the same level of intensity that they do in art schools. It is this strange somewhat magical quality of the practice that completely captivates me, and makes me wonder ‘why’ and ‘how’? The accumulating rolls of charcoal smeared butchers paper don’t represent this either, so I am wondering if words can come close to articulating what is occurring.

The end of the class is marked by the cries of a Rohinga man, calling everyone to lunchtime prayers. I shake the hands of the visiting Imam as the volunteers scramble together rolls of paper, charcoal, pencils and brushes, bidding hasty farewells as we are ushered back into the visitors area.


Sririhan was a journalist in Sri Lanka, and continued to write in Tamil during his six years of detention in Australia. While he was in detention, volunteers would get his work translated through members of Australia’s Tamil community, or occasionally by paying a professional translator, and would publish his short stories and poetry under a pseudonym. The limitations of working between languages are acutely felt by Sri. His attempt to merge Molly and myself into a poetic image of the affection felt by his peers for our playful audacity in turning up to the detention centre just to draw and laugh fell flat in the English translation. “My writing in Tamil is poetic” he said “I can’t translate it into English. You decide how to explain it. It’s your story! ” he declared, which of course it isn’t. The subjects of the story include all of the participants of the art class, and the hauntology that whispers through every mark made in charcoal, and every memory and sense that each of us carry with us of that moment. The burden of poetic writing, and the burden of translation is to carry this multitude of storytellers, and story owners into a narrative. The gaps between high Tamil and prosaic English evoke the gaps in aspiration, in place, in presence and memory which saturate the spaces of any life drawing class, and especially this class in detention. It evokes a way of writing drawing that opens up narrative into a space that is more receptive of the modalities of feeling, of sensing, and seeing, remembering and imagining; and the constant dance between languages and words and things becoming, and things falling away.


Note: Like a painting with many different colours mixed together, this story is a mixture of reality and imagination.

One out of millions of tiny sperms is picked to fertilize the egg, which is nurtured in a woman’s womb.  This is nature’s way.  The creation of a work of art is not quite the same.  An artist threads together various minute atoms on the canvas to convey his thoughts with the aid of his paintbrush.  A musician can also be called a creator – there is pain accompanying the birth of their work.   Art is the expression of a society’s culture and civilization.  As far as I can see, no one has come up with any set procedures to be followed in creating a work of art.  Some draw forms without any shape, but can weave a story into these forms.  Others have the talent of scribbling a few lines that can be interpreted in many different ways.  A work of art is judged by the talent of the artist, the way it is advertised and reviewed, and the backdrop of time against which it is set, and not just by the perceptions of the viewer.

Margaret is an artist who has the talent of conveying her feelings through her sketches. She comes to visit with another artist affectionately called Molly, who is a favorite of many at MITA.  An endearing child-like quality is their chief attribute, and they are the heroes of this piece.  Every Friday, they conduct art classes in the reception area.  One Friday, Molly acted as the model, and there were 5 or 6 aspiring artists trying to capture her on paper.   One of them was making a concerted effort, and battling with his paintbrush to express his emotions.  The brush conveyed the great effort he was making, and his lack of artistic knowledge, but his painting did not reflect Molly’s image.   There is a Tamil proverb which says, “Whatever is in the pot is what you’ll get in your ladle”. His soul was filled with pain, and his painting spoke volumes of his suffering.  He was unable to draw what he saw that day, and he crumpled up his efforts.

If every thought is executed,There is no need for God.

Kannadasan, 1962

The person next to him drew into Molly’s child-like face all her aches and pains, her hatred and her sorrow.  Molly’s figure had a beautiful youthful bloom in keeping with her age.  But the woman drew her with heavy milk-filled breasts, and a drawn stomach covered with scars.  The legs were shrunken – one foot was half-completed, and the other was lame.  The would-be artist sighed.  She might have been recalling her past pain.  She returned to her painting after a brief pause, and started on the eyes.  Within one eye she drew a baby growing in the womb, and in the other a bullet-ridden blood-covered corpse of a child.  She too could not draw Molly who stood in front of her.

Next to this woman whose painting reflected the ravages of war, was an Italian man.  His portrayal of Molly was a mixture of love and lust.  Her eyes shone with romance, and her lips expressed a longing for love.  I hardly noticed the jewellery Molly was wearing that day, but he used it to good effect to enhance her beauty.  His eyes pierced the black-netted dress that Molly was wearing, and sketched her form to perfection. His depiction of Molly was the epitome of a young woman in the first bloom of youth before attaining motherhood.  But when he started working on the face, lust dissolved into love.  He added a few more strokes and the face was filled with peace.  As he worked on the face some more, he suddenly laughed.  He held his painting up with his right hand, tilted his head and laughed again.  Molly’s face had the appearance of a mother in the painting.  But only he knew how he had meant to portray her.

A certain demureness developed in Molly’s expression, though she stood like a statue.  The artists did not perceive the shift.  They saw just one perspective and layered on it their own experiences, thoughts and longings.  Molly’s form was just the frame in which they expressed themselves.  One artist alone observed the shift in Molly and tried to capture the fleeting expressions on her face in her painting, but she failed.  Human weakness can pose a challenge when an artist tries to capture the truth.  Nature too mixes imperfections into its creation, and it is this contrast that makes it work.  It is a law of nature that nothing can exist without an opposing force to counteract it.

One woman painted without any pause.  In her portrayal, Molly’s hair was like a bundle being borne on her head.  She drew Molly’s netted dress like torn rags.  Her face was depicted as a person without any direction, lost on life’s journey.  Poverty, thirst, and the challenges which lay ahead formed the backdrop.  In the distance there was a green bush with a broken branch and a dried up bud.  Next to it on the ground, was a half-buried foot-print covered with dried blood.  There was also a child’s hand with the fingers pointing skyward, and next to it a lone seed which had burst open to release the sapling.  In the distance was a desert with the sand in wavy lines like a woman’s long hair, soaked in blood.  With just a few lines she had embedded thousands upon thousands of meanings into her background, which spoke of her past, her present and her future.

A small boy held up the picture he had drawn.  He had used wavy blue lines to draw Molly.  Her hair resembled the waves of the ocean, and her eyes were like two little boats.  The face was lack-lustre, and filled with fear.  Her feet were facing different directions.  Her drawn stomach had an egg-shaped depression like a boat observed from overhead.  Molly’s dress looked like fishing nets.

If you looked at his painting very carefully, he had embedded into it the terrible experiences of his boat journey.  Did anyone understand the story he had to tell?  Nobody had the time to look carefully at the painting of a little boy. “It looks good” they said patronisingly. He was happy with the encouragement, and showed it proudly to everyone.  Human thoughts lie silenced within our minds in this way.  Just like the little boy’s painting tried to tell a story which no one perceived, our feelings live and die within us in this institution.

I am a human being with countless feelings rising within me, but I kill them before they have a chance to live.  I recognise two entities within me.  One examines the feelings that arise with honesty, and rejects them due to an inability to do anything about it.  The other is overcome by feelings of helplessness and justifies it.  Both opposing thoughts live within me, and I stand before you as one man.  I find myself unable to express my feelings.  I am a mute who can speak.  I too am a canvas painted by the brush of politicians.   To fully understand a work of art, you need information about the backdrop. In the same way, you can’t understand me unless you accept me as a human being just like you.  If you don’t accept my humanity, I am just a crumpled up sketch to you.

My feelings lie imprisonedLike colourful paintings

On white paper

Men saw

these colourful paintings

and appreciated them.


Sririhan learnt English in detention, and suffers the exiled writers torment of being constantly and agonizingly frustrated by the gap between his writerly language; the high Tamil where poetry and philosophy and spirituality run through a series of complex metaphors and devices, and the everyday Tamil in exile, that can be broken down and translated into ‘migrant English’; the lingua franca register of form filling, greeting officers, phone calls to volunteers, letters, email, and the concrete exchanges of daily life.

Sri’s account includes a quotation from the Tamil poet Kannadasan, translated into English: “If every thought is executed, there is no need for God.”   Kannadasan’s writings were concerned with spirituality and belief and non-belief in Hinduism and other religions. In addition to novels and books of poetry, his poems featured as songs in Tamil movies during the twentieth century; embedding a mixture of poetry and philosophy into popular culture. These words about realising every single thought making a deity redundant, come from a song that starts with: “Nonaipadhu ellam nadandhu vittal Deivam edhum illai” (Lyrical Delights, 2011). Sri gave another translation of these words as “If humans think they will always win, then there is no need for God.” None of the words has a direct translation into English, and like most spiritual texts, it embeds layers of meaning into this aphorism that can be meditated on and reinterpreted, as is frequently done in blogs such as Strands of Thought (Narayan, 2011) In the narrative above, the aphorism evokes a range of values linked to artistic endeavour that could also be described as quasi platonic, and reminiscent of Balzac’s story of The Unkown Masterpiece. The idea of art as a continuous enactment of imperfection that strives towards the perfect and the divine, and evokes the divine in this striving for what cannot be realised is not new or unique, but neither can it be dismissed as a manifestation of a cross cultural universal unconscious. For a ‘failed drawing’, the line in Tamil is like a refrain; a snatch of song that resounds musically in the inner ear of an imagined Tamil drawer to give a form of comfort “if my drawing was perfect, then I wouldn’t need God”. The gaps between aspiration and reality are common to artistic practice and more intensely and brutally experienced within the detention archipelago. Sri’s account evokes the multiplicity of views, of seeing as an act of imagination, and of bare life in detention as necessarily embedding the practice of seeing the unseen, or not seeing the prison in which people are placed.

Is it tendentious to read so much into such a short simple story? The metaphors of what are unseen and seen by the participants; as stereotyped straight lust, maternal longing or traumatic flashbacks may seem like projections of the writer, just like his evocation of a child’s scribble of blue hair as blue ocean. And yet from the past year of visiting Sri in detention, watching him wrangle with oil paint, while he and I watched many children in detention draw, his account rings true. The drawings of child asylum seekers capture the imaginative flights between the present and the past and the future all in a mad continuous swirl. Children draw cars, write their names, draw flowers and butterflies and cats and dogs and puppies and then big boats and sunshine and oceans and people drowning all together. Many children do not edit their flights of fancy while drawing, and allow the strange amalgam of thoughts to pass directly onto the page, whereas adults are often more discrete. The power


of having semi-directed drawing exercises in a detention centre, allows people to move between the spaces of aspiration and memory and feeling with less pressure. They allow people to fill the gaps between languages with images. We draw a thing and then share its name in whatever scraps of language we can find.

Scrabbling at the edges of languages, moving between online dictionaries, conversation, drawings, media, websites and books is an intense experience of the vernacular cosmopolitanism evoked by Homi Bhabha. I do not speak Persian or Tamil, and am barely fluent in Spanish and French. As an Anglophone, my relation to other languages as always been from a position of privileged provincialism, although I remember my own silence in Spanish, and in French, when I didn’t have the words for who I was, when I didn’t have the words to show any humour, or intelligence or wit. I have wrought words between Spanish and English (interpreting speeches for Latin American community events), and witnessed the word wrangling of a former lover who was an English to French translator, but occasionally needed my assistance, dragging the translation umbrella backwards, from familiar to other language; filling in the gaps between the registers, the sentiments and poetic lapses invoking Eco and cursing Borges as we danced between such intermingled and close Eurotongues. Despite the pale glimmers of recognition between Persian, Arabic and Spanish, or the paler echoes between similar sounding numbers in Persian and Greek these are languages too far from my own. Tamil is redolent of the gruntwork of Sanskrit verses from yoga; an impossibly remote script and tongue that I cannot even hope to hold or walk towards. And yet to admit defeat in the face of a language spoken by a friend who is almost the same age as me, who has learnt to talk in my language, and is slowly learning to write in it, seems unfair. So I scrabble with the scraps I can glean, and try to convey some of the depth of the oceans of meaning that run between and through all of us.

This story does not have a direct link to sexuality studies or queer identity politics. My own queer identity, that of other queer artists (such as Sam Wallman) who I have met at the detention centre, or even the presence of queer SERCO officers, is a lugubrious addition to a rather nuanced account of creative exchange.  Identity labels seem absurd in this context; it is absurd to weigh these words down with labels like ‘lesbian’ or ‘boat person’. However the account of queerness as a bodily disposition, as a deeply affective and physical relationship to the borderlands of power and identity and aspiration as examined by Sarah Ahmed does have more relevance; perhaps because her account of queerness is inseperable from her account of racialisation and gendered prejudice (Ahmed, 2006). In the intense micropolitical affective negotations of power, queerness and asylum flow through the gaps between language, through the bodily habits of stealth and hope and desire acquired in the liminal zones of marginalisation, exile and repudiation. They manage to connect through the barriers of linguistic and cultural difference, while the traumas of boat journeys, of fleeing and of detention flow through the impressions, the spaces and matter of watching, witnessing and imagining and remembering.


Ahmed, Sarah. 2006. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others, Durham & London: Duke University Press.

‘Kannadasan ‘Ninaipadhu Ellam Nadandhu vital’ from Nenjil or Alayam 1962 (dir: Sridhar) Information from Lyrical Delights, Accessed 1 June2015, <>

Nayaranan, Badri VS. 2011. ‘Ninaipadhu Ellam Nadandhu vital’  Strands of thought, 29/11/2011, Viewed 1 June 2015 <>.

Nicolaides, Kimon. 1969. The Natural Way To Draw. Boston: Houghton Miffin.

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