Iman Tajik1
Images by Alexander Campbell and Mohamad

‘The migrant has lost the nation state. The refugee has lost their house. The trans person loses their body. They all cross that border. The border is part of them and cuts through them. Usurps and overthrows them.’ Paul B Preciado, Can the Monster Speak?, 2021

‘The map is not the land itself, it is not the rivers, it is not the place; it can only ever be a symbol of those things. You have to walk the land to know it. Maps do not account for experience and lived knowledge.’Rasheedah Phillips, ‘Placing Time, Timing Space’, Funambulist 18, 2018 [1]

‘Empires crumble, capitalism is not inevitable, gender is not biological, whiteness is not immutable, prisons are not inescapable, and borders are not natural law.’ Harsha Walia, Border and Rule, 2021

‘We can only destroy the border—both physical and mental—by reaching across it in solidarity.’ Leah Cowan, Border Nation, 2021

Iman Tajik2

Sometimes a sign can help to hide the very thing it’s pointing at. On OS map 334, Dungavel House Immigration Removal Centre is visible amid coniferous forest as a cluster of beige buildings set back a little from the B743. ‘Detention Centre’, reads the text, in the same font and size used to denote small rural things like butts or cairns or sheepfolds. At the site itself, a white road sign marks the turning: ‘Dungavel House IRC’, that unexplained acronym concealing far more than it wishes to reveal.

The difference in terminology between these two signs is subtly revealing. The map denotes a place of detention; the road sign points to removal. One signifies movement, the other the prevention of movement. In both cases the signs also suggest a lack of agency: removal and detention being actions imposed without consent upon people or animals or things.

Movement as a fundamental right, and the state systems that prevent so many from being able to exercise that right, are key subjects in the work of Iman Tajik. In June 2021, Tajik led a marathon-length (26 miles), day-long group walk from the centre of Glasgow to Dungavel as part of Glasgow International. In addition to the walk, the project, Bordered Miles, also encompassed an exhibition at Listen Gallery and a small hand-out containing a neatly folded emergency foil blanket and a map of the walk illustrated by the Kirkwood Brothers.

The walk stretches across OS maps 342 and 334. I traced the route—along city streets, along motorway verges and down country lanes—and circled our destination in orange highlighter. It begins at George Square before heading through the Merchant City and out among residential sprawl, industrial estates and urban fringe, then through the fields and farmland surrounding Dungavel.

Along the way, we talk about the walk itself but about many other things too. I don’t know any of the other walkers, but a temporary community is quickly formed. I share in conversations about walking as an art practice or leisure pursuit or act of pilgrimage; about maps, especially the history of Ordnance Survey; about artists (Peter Doig, Edvard Munch); about cameras and developing film at home; about David Graeber, bureaucracy, work and the state. I hear stories of far-right removal men, of wedding photography cowboys, of sculptures being mistaken for bombs. I’m reminded that my (always incomplete) recognition of my own privilege is in fact a product of that privilege—the result of access to education, time, the resources to buy books, to work in the arts. I hear of the trauma of indefinite detention in which, with no known end in sight, time loses its markers and becomes unbearable.

Later I read Leah Cowan, who notes that ‘Britain is the only country in Europe where you can be held in detention without knowledge of when you will be released or any limitation on how long you will be incarcerated.’ [2] I wonder about what that does to the marking of time, so central to life under capitalism that we can scarcely imagine a life without clocks.

On the walk I overhear a conversation:

‘The driver was also at Dungavel.’
‘How long was he there?’
‘I didn’t ask.’


With an hour to go, we stop at a gate by the side of a quiet country lane and wait in silence. Soon, a performance begins. Like many of Tajik’s works, it consists of a series of simple gestures that resonate with complexity.

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Iman Tajik4

Iman lays out lines across the road in coloured tape. One by one, he kneels and loops tape in corresponding colours around our calves. I wonder if it is an act of care or a temporary branding. Each of us is marked differently in relation to the borders about to be crossed, but the nature of that relation remains unclear.

We read out short texts from workshops that Iman has carried out with communities in Glasgow and Huntly—mostly simple messages of love or hope, shock or solidarity. There is also a brilliant response from curator Natalie Nicolaides, in which she recounts reading Alexandra Hall’s analysis of the ‘thickened space’, in which the state renders people ‘abject… excludable’, while sitting within the ‘welcoming’ interior of Glasgow’s Mitchell Library. [3] One kind of state apparatus revealed inside another. Under neoliberalism, cuts to culture mean more money for incarceration.

As we stand together, I’m thinking about the multiplicity of accents in which the texts are read: Chinese, English, German, Russian, Scottish. I think about the car that approaches mid-performance and drives over the border lines as if they were not there. And I think about the swallows, hectic, flitting through the air just above us: As a migrating species, these swallows are a relevant distraction, so emblematic of freedom and joy. I think about the swallows on the cover of Harsha Walia’s Border and Rule. [4] Nature is for movement.

Over the course of the performance, we stand as witnesses to the construction of the border, its multiple crossings, and in the end to its dismantling. It is shown to be flimsy, a temporary artefact of history, not natural, fixed or immutable. The border is a performative practice. It has a beginning and therefore, one day, an end.

For the next hour, at Iman’s instigation, we walk in silence through a bucolic landscape, its beauty shaped by enclosure, agriculture, new technologies and changing labour patterns. Lush fields, tangled hedgerows, gnarled and ancient trees, verges dancing with cow parsley, white hawthorn blossom blushing pink. Today all is stained or re-framed through the lens of detention, oppression, state violence. This place in the countryside is one of many where the border is enacted, a place where people are compelled to be because they are prevented from being. How can we see beauty when we know what happens here? Yet the beauty remains.

Several weeks after the walk, Iman told me that during that final walking silence he felt a connection with so many other refugees, asylum seekers and migrants who have made or tried to make a journey towards a better life, and with those thousands who have died en route. ‘I see myself as one of them,’ he said, ‘walking for a better life, a safe life.’

‘I’m interested in ideas not stories,’ Iman says. Ironically perhaps, this emphasis can be understood in terms of Iman’s own specific experiences and what it means to speak of them. The stakes are complex, and there is always a danger that, in telling your story as a refugee, it can be co-opted or weaponised. People are pressured into revisiting their trauma for the consumption of others. Tajik’s response aims to resist this tendency and to speak beyond one restrictive set of experiences or identities. ‘I know about other things,’ says Tajik. ‘Ask me about other things!’ While Iman’s time as detainee at Dungavel is significant in situating the work in the context of real lived experience, he gives us no accounts of life inside or stories of his own journey as a refugee.

‘As an artist and activist, it is my role to return there and draw attention to this place,’ he says of Dungavel. ‘Now I have some kind of freedom and can point my finger at this place. I was there alone and now I come back with friends—it’s a kind of revenge. I’m coming back with a different energy, a positive energy. As someone who’s been in this place and knows many people who have been too, I know what happens there.’

In undertaking what is a long and tiring walk, there is a temptation to align oneself with the refugee experience. I must resist this temptation. We’re often told about the importance of empathy for a more progressive, humane form of politics. As I write, an artist friend has shared a link arguing that empathy should be considered an aesthetic practice. [5] Walk a mile in another person’s shoes, as the saying goes. But there are problems with this.

First is the ever-present danger of over-empathising and of writing myself, as a privileged white cis male, into or over the stories of those who have experienced real trauma at the hands of racialised border regimes. This overwriting is prevalent in sectors of the art world (and beyond) where an eagerness to engage with work by marginalised artists, privileged writers/curators/critics/collectors cannot help but draw false parallels between their own globe-trotting lifestyles and the enforced and dangerous journeys of the migrant or refugee.

Secondly, empathy has its limits. For some, empathy relies upon some kind of common ground or shared experience/characteristic. An obvious danger is a politics based on proximity or similarity. Joanna Rajkowska’s Suiciders effectively exploded the idea that empathy could really be any kind of basis for meaningful political action. [6] If even literally placing one’s body in exactly the same position of another is not enough, then really it is never going to be possible to see the world through the eyes of another. What then? It is not only that empathy is always insufficient/impossible but that it relies upon the performance/expression of essentialist differences in order for there to be a bridge for empathy to reach across. As Sara Ahmed argues, ’ …empathy sustains the very difference that it may seek to overcome’.

Thirdly, what is needed is not empathy (or not only empathy) but solidarity. It is through Harsha Walia that I encountered the above quotation from Ahmed. In Border and Rule, Walia argues that we should not rely on a (false) politics of (impossible) empathy. If what she terms liberal welcome culture, epitomised by Angela Merkel’s response to the people fleeing war in Syria, is dependent on the good feeling of privileged Europeans, then it can always be reneged upon—and that leaves those deemed not local enough in a perpetual state of vulnerability to the whims of the privileged. We need only look to the Windrush scandal to see the disastrous consequences when a state first extends its ‘welcome’ and then changes its mind. As Walia writes:

‘Most troubling about liberal welcome culture is the erasure of European complicity in creating displacement through colonial conquest, land theft, slavery, capitalist extraction, labour exploitation, and war profiteering. Refugees and migrants defying Fortress Europe do not require the variable empathy of Europeans; their movement is ultimately a form of decolonial reparation.’


Eventually, up ahead, I catch a glimpse of Dungavel, its absurd fairytale turret just visible through evergreen trees. Built by the Dukes of Hamilton as a hunting lodge in the nineteenth century, the house was once surrounded by grouse moors. It was sold to the National Coal Board in 1947, then acquired by the government and converted into a prison. In 2001, Dungavel was reclassified as an immigration detention centre. At one time, it was run by private contractors G4S, then taken over by GEO Group. On a page of GEO’s UK website, capacity at Dungavel is listed as 125. [7] On its US site it says 249. [8] All around, where grouse were once raised to be shot, aristocratic leisure has given way to commercial forestry.

Dungavel is just one node in a network that also includes Brook House, Colnbrook, Harmondsworth, Morton Hall, Tinsley House, Yarl’s Wood and various other holding facilities, all under the control of the UK government in Westminster (rather than the Scottish government at Holyrood). 25,000 people are locked up without trial each year in these facilities at the cost, between 2013 and 2017, of £500 million. [9] As Harsha Walia argues, ‘One of the sickest symptoms of neoliberal capitalist states is the subcontracting of incarceration to private companies.’ [10]

This privatisation has been accompanied by a proliferation of border-policing techniques that extend well beyond the image of a singular line between nations: from the refugee camp at Calais to foreign aid agreements and the conversion of ordinary working people into border guards required to police, surveille, refuse, and report. Priti Patel’s advocacy for offshore detention follows Australia’s opaque activities on Manus Island. As Walia puts it, ‘The border is elastic, and the magical line can exist anywhere. Crossing the border does not end the struggle for undocumented people, because the border is mobile and can be enforced anywhere within the nation state.’ [11]

At the entrance to the site are a further two signs. One, set at ground level within a low stone frame, reads ‘Dungavel House Immigration Removal Centre’. Above and to the left is the logo of the UK Home Office, bearing the motto, Honi soit qui mal y pense. A bizarre relic of Middle French chivalric morality, this is usually translated as ‘shame on anyone who thinks evil of it’. An internet search tells me that in current French usage, the phrase may be used ironically to insinuate the presence of a hidden agenda or a conflict of interest.

The second more recent sign reads, ‘Welcome to Dungavel House Immigration Removal Centre’, begging the question: who exactly is being ‘welcomed’ here? Who is this sign for? It bears the logo of GEO Group, the private contractors who profit from the detention of refugees and migrants. On Google Street View, you can still see the sign of the previous contractor: G4S. It points to the interchangeability of companies such as GEO Group, G4S, Serco and Mitie that run multiple arms of the globalised neoliberal state. The lie that governments and client journalists continue to peddle is that privatisation creates competition which in turn creates efficiency. In reality, many refugees are forced to waste their lives waiting for approval from a system that is grossly and willfully inefficient. ‘In 1996, notes Shahram Khosravi, ‘the average time of being a refugee was nine years.

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Today it is more than 20 years.’ [12] These interchangeable corporations function as hugely profitable buffers that enable governments to deny responsibility for their own incompetence/atrocities and generate immense wealth for supporters and friends. The estimated net worth of George Zoley, GEO Group’s founder and CEO, is at least $41.1 million. [13] During the last US election cycle, Zoley gave $514,800 to Trump’s Republicans as well as $10,000 to Democrats, according to a report in the Washington Post. It states, ‘According to the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics, people and groups linked to GEO have given more than $1.7 million, mostly to Republicans.’ [14]

As we walk up the access road, those who arrived by car wait to welcome us with cheers and applause. We’ve completed the walk. We are here, at last, in this half-hidden shadow place. But what does it mean—for us, for Iman, for those detained inside?

Midges surround us as Iman strides up the road, unfurls a flag, raises it to the sky. The gold and silver of the foil emergency blanket shimmers in the air, hangs, gusts a little. This flag has been a significant motif in Tajik’s work for some time now, planted (as an act of triumph/revenge/arrival/solidarity?) in Scottish landscapes or hung to wave and rustle before a wind machine in the gallery at Stills, Edinburgh. As Iman himself has said:

‘I want the flag to open up conversations about nationality and migration. I question nationality because of its association with borders. Borders divide; they are used as a tool for power and control, and can destroy freedom of movement which is a basic human right. Freedom of movement exists but only for some people. It depends on your passport—if you are European or British you can travel easily. If you decide to go somewhere for work, for the weather, for love, you just go. So many freedoms. For other people, it is not the same.’ [15]

In the terminology of Vamık Volkan, a Turkish Cypriot psychiatrist known for his work in conflict resolution, the flag is a ‘reservoir’ of significance, a place where old meanings are preserved, around which communities converge or are forced to converge. Tajik leaves open what community his flag represents. As the climate crisis worsens, Iman notes, the numbers of refugees will increase. What if you were a refugee one day? Is this the flag you would rally around?

His flag is unusual. The colours and designs of most flags are usually chosen to symbolise some important aspect of a nation’s history or geography such as green for fertility or red for blood. This flag is gold and silver. We might be tempted to speak about the construction of value under capitalism and about the extractive industries that have helped create conditions so dangerously intolerable that people have no choice but to flee. But in Tajik’s flag, the colours have not been chosen for what they might represent; rather, they are result of the materiality of the gold and silver object—the emergency blanket which is often all that is given to refugees by way of shelter or ‘welcome’. In a sense, we could think of Tajik’s flag as an anti-flag. It is a material, not a representation. It is a real thing with a vital function co-opted for a moment to serve as a flag for all those excluded by or opposed to the flags of nation states, armies, corporations.

At Dungavel, chanting erupts:

No borders! No nations!

Stop deportations!

Say it loud and say it clear!

Refugees are welcome here!

Iman tells me later that the chanting was partly planned in advance and partly a spontaneous act by the group. This feels important. As a communal walk, the work sets up a situation over which the artist’s control is limited. Tajik does not tell us what to feel or think. But we feel throughout like a group. We/us not I/me. This speaks to an openness and generosity of spirit that infuses all of Tajik’s work—a refusal to restrict how people engage, even when that leaves the work open to bad-faith responses by those who elect themselves to police who may walk in the Scottish landscape and what they may say and do here.

I hope that those inside Dungavel can hear us, that maybe it makes some small difference to know that not all people in Scotland share the voice of the state that claims to act in our name. We are implicated in the systems we inhabit even as we oppose them. But many good people are fighting for change. Sophia Azeb expresses the importance of this kind of action better than I ever will:

’ …with each grand, ebullient, tense, emotional meeting, we also open up the world a little for one another. We are able to prove to ourselves: we are not alone. We have come together here for you too.’ [16]

In lieu of a conclusion, here is Walia once more, whose every sentence is like Tajik’s flag—a declaration to remember, a standard to rally around:

‘A no borders politics… is a politics of refusal, a politics of revolution, and a politics of repair.’ [17]


Tom Jeffreys is a writer who lives in Edinburgh. His writing has appeared in ArtReview, Frieze, The Guardian, The Independent, Monocle, New Scientist and The World of Interiors. He is the author of two books: The White Birch: A Russian Reflection (Little, Brown, 2021) and Signal Failure: London to Birmingham, HS2 on Foot (Influx Press, 2017). He is also editor of online magazine The Learned Pig.

Iman Tajik is an Iranian artist and photographer based in Glasgow, Scotland. His work is anchored in a strong social interest and demonstrates an effort to make work that is a critical tool connected to international movements for social change. His work addresses issues of contemporary conditions of life with a particular focus on migration and globalisation. He founded Who is? Project in collaboration with Jonas Jessen Hansen in 2017.


[1] Rasheedah Phillips, ‘Placing Time, Timing Space: Dismantling the Master’s Map and Clock’, Funambulist18, 2018

[2] Leah Cowan, Border Nation: A Story of Migration, 2021

[3] Alexandra Hall, Border Watch,2012

[4] Harsha Walia, Border and Rule: Global Migration, Capitalism and the Rise of Racist Nationalism, 2021

[5] Susan Lanzoni, ‘Empathy is, at heart, an aesthetic appreciation of the other’, Psyche,10 August 2021 (accessed 10.08.21)

[6] Joanna Rajkowska, Suiciders, 2018

[7] (accessed 11.08.21)

[8] (accessed 11.08.21)

[9] Leah Cowan, Border Nation: A Story of Migration, 2021

[10] Harsha Walia, Border and Rule: Global Migration, Capitalism and the Rise of Racist Nationalism, 2021

[11] Harsha Walia, Border and Rule: Global Migration, Capitalism and the Rise of Racist Nationalism, 2021

[12] Shahram Khosravi, ‘Waiting Borders in Dictatorial and Bordering Regimes’, FunambulistJul/Aug 2021

[13] (accessed 11.08.21)

[14] Nomaan Merchant, ‘Private prison industry backs Trump, prepares if Biden wins’, Washington Post, 13 August 2020 (accessed 11.08.21)

[15] Sophie Suliman, ‘Iman Tajik’s “Bordered Miles”’, Bella Caledonia, 18 June 2021 (accessed 15.10.21)

[16] Sophia Azeb, ‘On Solidarity, In Solidarity’, Funambulist Jul/Aug 2021

[17] Harsha Walia, Border and Rule: Global Migration, Capitalism and the Rise of Racist Nationalism, 2021