Works of Feelings

“My first friends.” Homemade card hand drawn with tissue paper accents. Credit: Photograph by Erin Donnelly and Kristyn Scorsone. Courtesy of: First Friends of NJ and NY

Written by - Naomi Extra and Kristyn Scorsone

Works of Feelings

“I mean, there’s so many like emotions I feel. Like [for] me, personally. And I think for everyone that’s involved with detainees and have direct contact because you take on some of their suffering and their emotional burden.” - Sally Pillay

We felt a little guilty taking the detainee artwork and we didn’t know why. This was work that had been sent by detainees to the organization in the spirit of gratitude. The work felt deeply intimate and personal. After gaining permission to photograph it, we showed up with an empty box and began to remove the work from the walls and shelves. When we were done, Sally remarked about how bare the walls were. This was when we realized that the artwork held sentimental value. It was the product of a bond between the organization and detainees.

The work that First Friends does is political and it is also very much connected to the recognition of some of the traumatic feelings that immigrant detainees may undergo while in detention. As we learned through both our conversations with some of the staff at First Friends and through a visit to the Elizabeth Detention Center, detention is an experience riddled with pain for many detainees. The services that First Friends offers is an attempt to alleviate some pain and trauma due to the experience of detention.

First Friends’ collection of detainee art certainly fits under the rubric of outsider art and there is a tremendous amount of craft exhibited in many of the pieces. But this isn’t where the heart of the story lies; it’s in the feelings. “It is a way from them to express themselves and it’s a token of maybe appreciation to the work of First Friends supporting them while they’re detained,” Sally said. Many of the pieces expressed gratitude towards First Friends in writing. “Thank you,” written in English and Spanish appears on several of the pieces, some of which are highly decorated. The artwork serves as a testament to a bond between First Friends and the detainees, which is why we felt bad about taking it out of the office.

But it’s also more. These acts of art making and gift giving can be seen as strategies of resistance that show how detainees negotiate confinement and isolation. Gifts are a way of deepening a connection with another person. They hold memories and feelings. The detainee art was the product of an exchange that began at the detention center and then became housed as a collection of feelings at First Friends. These feeling are multilayered and complex, they are of the detainees and of members of the organization. They are of gratitude and they are of pain and trauma.

The artwork also holds information about who the artists are and the conditions under which the work was created. While we can find many works of modern art created out of found objects and with a range of materials, the art created by the detainees is an art of necessity and resistance. It is a challenge to the sterility and the highly limited access to pleasure and recreation in detention centers. Many of the pieces contain bright colors, which would stand in contrast to the institutional whites, blues, and greys that often color the space of detention centers. The artwork is made of Ramen noodle wrappers, paper towels, tissues, bed sheets, and garbage bags. Some of the work was created in secret. The detainees have limited access to materials. Not only does the artwork represent resistance, so does the act of sending it to First Friends in the form of a gift. It is a way to affirm one’s humanity through the expression of gratitude. It is also a way to allow their feelings to exist outside of detention.

While the First Friends office does hold a collection of detainee art, it is not an exhibition. The collection is not meant for public consumption, it is there as an affirmation that the work is valuable, the detainees are valuable, and so are their feelings.

To learn more about First Friends of NJ and NY, please visit here.

A detainee uses art to question the justice of the detention system. Credit: Photograph by Erin Donnelly and Kristyn Scorsone Courtesy of: First Friends of NJ and NY