Clause 39 of the Magna Carta is used to justify unethical detentions in Britain today
Photo by Mariusz Prusaczyk
Magna Carta’s Clause 39 was the catalyst for my interest in this residency. I was struck by the apparent conflict between the words drafted in 1215, and the current state of British legislation – which allows women and children to be ‘detained’ indefinitely in unacceptable conditions.
“No free man is to be arrested, or imprisoned, or disseised, or outlawed, or exiled, or in any other way ruined, nor will we go against him or send against him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land”.
This seems at complete odds with detention centres such as the infamous Yarl’s Wood which hold women seeking asylum (sometimes pregnant women) without a trial, and without appropriate health care provision. Whereas clause 39 states ‘lawful judgement of his peers’, as a precursor to imprisonment, in today’s Britain, people fleeing injustice, persecution and war are met with what is essentially imprisonment, with no trial in sight. (Read about Mabel here, a woman kept in Yarl’s Wood, with no trial for three years.) A 2016 report carried out by the chief of prisons argued that the “centre was of national concern”, and yet it is still open and changes do not seem to have been put in place.
And though I sound like a broken record, seen in the context of these detention centres, Clause 40: “We will not sell, or deny, or delay right or justice to anyone” can only be seen as a complete lie, as justice for some of these women seems permanently delayed. It is in light of Yarl’s Wood and detention centres like it, that I’d like to focus this week on explorations of detention and restriction in both its literal and metaphorical forms, and the ways in which artists reject or speak to oppressive forces. I’ll be looking at work by Annabel Duggleby ( a film, sculpture and installation artist) and poet Yesenia Montilla to think of ways that engage with these tough topics in different ways, and yet maintain a dialogue that is free from pity or condescension.
In asking myself whether speaking up about things that matter most is of any value, I’m reminded of American poet Mary Howe, who says that “language is almost all we have left of action in the modern world – unless we’re in Syria or Iraq, but for many of us the moral life is lived out in what we say”.
Whilst I’m not sure I agree entirely, and action should definitely become a part of our daily routines towards bringing about change, it is encouraging to think that language can be a starting point. Protest banners, slogans and speeches all play a part in the world of activism, where picking up a pen is as valid as any other form of protest. Even our current political situation, the hung parliament and Conservative’s loss of seats can be traced back to linguistic phenomena. Light-hearted as they may seem, #Grime4Corbyn, #Bunthetories and other catchy one-liners were the starting point for an unprecedented surge in youth voting. I’m so inspired by the fact that 72% of Britain’s young turned up to vote, and it is a testament to the power of making sure our voices are heard.
Indeed, Theresa May wanting to eradicate the Human Rights Bill (and re-write it for her own purposes), is a testament to the fundamental power of language. And though Britain’s future quite literally hangs in the balance at the moment, we can be sure that a change to legislation will have real, visceral impacts on people’s lives and their bodies. Thinking of those who might be arrested without warrants, or those who might be deported whilst awaiting news of their applications for asylum, it’s clear to see how language has very tangible physical consequences. The artists that I’ve chosen to look at this week are all concerned with how language (and ideology) interacts with and impacts human bodies. Whilst concepts of nationhood, borders and governmental policy can at times seem estranged and impersonal, there is something to be said for tracing real physical impacts of these ideas. Inspired by artists like Yesenia Montilla and Annabel Duggleby, I hope my research this week brings me into contact with new ways of tracing these impacts in the personal and physical spaces, which I think are often more engaging and powerful than abstract, ideological discussions.