UK minister orders mural be destroyed at asylum centre—artists rally to replace it

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A series of prominent British artists, cartoonists and illustrators have pledged to create artworks in British asylum centres after Robert Jenrick, the UK’s immigration minister, ordered Home Office staff to destroy murals designed to create a welcoming atmosphere at a UK detention centre.

Jenrick told staff to paint over artistic depictions of animals etched onto the walls of Tug Haven, an asylum intake unit in Dover, Kent, in order to create a “law enforcement environment”, Enver Solomon, the head of a leading UK refugee charity, told an audience at the wiener Holocaust Library, the i newspaper reported.

Robert Jenrick’s parliamentary office did not respond to a request for comment.

In response to the news, the British illustrator and cartoonist Guy Venables, best known for his work on the weekly satirical newspaper Private Eye, is leading a consortium of artists, primarily from Private Eye and The Professional Cartoonists Organisation (PCO). The artists want to create work that might aid those arriving into Britain’s asylum system.

With the help of the London-based organisation the Refugee Council, Venables is currently negotiating with the Home Office to gain access to refugee centres where children are detained while their asylum claim is processed. Once permission is granted, the artists plan to cover the walls with welcoming art.

Venables tells The Art Newspaper: “I’ve offered to repaint the mural in the children’s centre, painted over on the orders of Robert Jenrick, in the refugee centre at Dover.”

Venables says that colleagues at Private Eye, namely the prominent cartoonists Royston, Banx, The Surreal McCoy, Glenn Marshall and Dermot Walsh, have agreed to create work in asylum centres, if permitted access. Prominent British illustrators Mike Dicks, Rosie Brooks and Chris White have also pledged to join Venables.

“Jenrick’s decision to censor artwork for children is a baffling display of astonishing, pointless cruelty,” Venables says. “In response, my offer is simple. We will go the centre and do another mural. A huge one. A mural illustrated by many of the country’s best cartoonists and illustrators. Jenrick might, just might, think twice about vandalising several professional national cartoonist’s work just to deny a vulnerable child something fun to look at.”

British art organisations that support asylum seekers have pledged their support for the budding initiative. Almir Koldzic, the director of the London-based organisation Counterpoints Arts, says: ”It is staggering to hear that anyone would take issue with art made to welcome children seeking sanctuary. We support many artists working in asylum accommodation around the UK and welcome any further initiatives to bring creativity and joy to people for whom it can make such a huge difference.”

Savan Qadir, a project manager at the Glasgow-based campaign group Refugees for Justice, saysl: “We are totally behind the offer made by Guy Venables and other artists to create cartoons in British asylum detention centres. It is shocking to hear Robert Jenrick is trying to psychologically punish children, often who are victims of persecution of war, by removing paintings and cartoons from the walls of asylum centres.”

The i newspaper reported that Solomon, the chief executive officer of the Refugee Council, alleged that Jenrick ordered the artwork to be censored while speaking to a live audience on 22 June at a Refugee Week event hosted by the Wiener Holocaust Library in Russell Square, London. The artworks were destroyed at an unspecified time earlier this year.

Accordingly, the director of the Wiener Holocaust Library, the world’s oldest archive of documents relating to the Holocaust, has expressed “concern at the hostile environment” the UK government has adopted towards asylum seekers arriving in the country.

Toby Simpson, the director of the library, tells The Art Newspaper: “We urge all governments to demonstrate compassion, and condemn words and actions that dehumanise those seeking refuge.”

According to the i newspaper, during the event at the Weiner Holocaust Library, Solomon recounted that Jenrick told staff the pictures “must be removed” in order to make it clear the centre was a “law enforcement environment” and “not a welcome centre”, Solomon claimed.

A spokesperson for Solomon declined a request for comment by The Art Newspaper.

A Home Office spokesperson tells The Art Newspaper: “We do all we can to ensure children are safe, secure and supported as we urgently seek placements with a local authority. All children receive a welfare interview on their arrival at accommodation, which includes questions designed to identify potential indicators of trafficking or safeguarding issues.

“Our priority is to stop the boats and disrupt the people smugglers. The government has gone further by introducing legislation which will ensure that those people arriving in the UK illegally are detained and promptly removed to their country of origin or a safe third country.”

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