Astounding art by British prisoners

Benjamin Zephaniah curates Koestler Trust exhibition at Southbank Centre

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Artists often attend their own exhibitions at some stage, but not many will make this one. That’s because most of the artists whose works feature in this show are locked behind bars.

We are all Human is a showcase of arts by British prisoners, ex-offenders, psychiatric patients and immigration detainees. It is the ninth exhibition in a partnership between the Koestler Trust and the Southbank Centre.

This year’s show was curated by Benjamin Zephaniah, the British Jamaican writer and poet who spent some time in prison. It features a wide range of art including painting, drawing, matchstick modelling, craft, music and writing.

The exhibition explores the themes of time, contemplation and the natural environment.

“Prison is a concrete jungle so I wanted to get as much nature into the exhibition as possible. We are all human – it’s a really simple truth,” said Mr Zephaniah.

The exhibition features about 200 works, which are on display until 13 November. We were given a brief tour by Koestler Trust CEO Sally Taylor and the exhibition’s producer, but first some art!

Here are a few of the many works that caught the eye of Prison Watch UK (so many good ones to choose from!).

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Ms Taylor said: “One thing you have when you’re in prison, and indeed you’re given, is time.”

“What we’re finding is that more pieces are being made in cell. Even in prisons that have art departments, sometimes the prisoners can’t get out because the staff aren’t there. If you’re in your cell for 23 hours, it’s hardly surprising that we get some incredibly intricate drawings.”

The Koestler Awards have been running since 1962. This year saw nearly 7,000 entries from 3,000 entrants in over 50 categories with winners being chosen by judges such as rapper Speech Debelle, artist Jeremy Deller, ceramics-maker Emma Bridgewater and the band Hot Chip.

Ms Taylor said she was “delighted with the range of work we’ve got in the exhibition, not only from prisons, but also from secure mental institutions, from immigration removal centres, from young people and from the women’s estate.”

Although she was busy preparing for an event, Ms Taylor took some time to show us a couple of the works that had caught her eye. “One of my favourite pieces is what I call Grendon on Grendon,” she said.

The artist, a prisoner called Darren at HMP Grendon, called it Group Therapy.

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Group Therapy by prisoner called Darren at HMP Grendon. Source: Prison Watch UK

Group Therapy by prisoner called Darren at HMP Grendon. Source: Prison Watch UK

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“Grendon is a therapeutic prison and this is a therapy session in Grendon made by somebody in Grendon clearly on a carpet tile taken from Grendon,” Ms Taylor explained. “You have the very well-meaning therapist, the prison officer and some Grendon prisoners in various states of engagement with the process going on.”

But with so many interesting pieces to choose from, Ms Taylor couldn’t just stop at one. “The other piece that is a standout is the Rosa Parks piece,” she says pointing to a large canvas of the American civil rights activist in the corner. It is by another artist at HMP Grendon, where there is an artist-in-residence sponsored by a charity.

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Painting of Rosa Parks done by prisoner in HMP Grendon. Source: Prison Watch UK

Painting of Rosa Parks done by prisoner at HMP Grendon. Source: Prison Watch UK

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“What you have to know about Rosa Parks is that she was made in the cell,” said Ms Taylor. “She sings to you from across the room, but yet the man who made it couldn’t have been more than three feet away. I think that’s an extraordinary piece.”

We were shown a few more works by Juliane Hémon, the Koestler Trust’s Exhibitions and Events Producer. One was a David Bowie painting reflecting a musical theme that ran throughout the exhibition.

“The artist transformed a complaint form, which is a piece of paper you can get quite easily, into a piece of art,” said Ms Hémon pointing towards a work by Paul at HMP Bullingdon called Aladdin Tiles.

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Aladdin Tiles by prisoner called Paul at HMP Bullingdon. Source: Prison Watch UK

Aladdin Tiles by prisoner called Paul at HMP Bullingdon. Source: Prison Watch UK

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David Bowie was far from the only musician to feature (although he did steal the show once more). Here are some more paintings on the musical theme.

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Ms Hémon also showed us a work by a prisoner who had featured in last year’s show and had used feedback from visitors to that exhibition in his work this year.

“What you see is a lot of bad words basically,” said Ms Hémon. “What at first seems like paint strokes are actually small words. Where it says ‘Fuck da police’ it actually says, if you look very close, ‘thank you, thank you, thank you’.”

The work is by an artist who is now in the Koestler Trust’s mentoring scheme after leaving prison.

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Ms Hémon shared Ms Taylor’s enthusiasm for the art and happily showed us more work.

“At the end of the exhibition we have a very small lock made out of matchsticks and if you look inside, it works,” she said. “It’s very very small and inside there is a spring from a biro. It was a bet between the artist and the prison officer who said he’d never get it working. And he did!”

The work is called Unlocked and is by a former prisoner from Brighton.

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Unlocked by a former prisoner called Christopher at the Brighton Probation Service. Source: Prison Watch UK

Unlocked by a former prisoner called Christopher at the Brighton Probation Service. Source: Prison Watch UK

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“Another story…I could go on forever,” said Ms Hémon. “This is folded paper. It’s not origami. It’s a bit like Lego – you build a structure with it. A few years ago we had one or two, but now we have more and more each year. What this shows us is that people inside teach each other how to do these things.”

The work is by a prisoner called Andreas at HMP Standford Hill and is called Swan Lake.

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“And these are paper birds made with matchsticks,” said Ms Hémon gesturing to the work next to the swans. “There are 39 white birds and the 40th is full of colour. It is about [the legal high] Spice in prison.

It is called Prison Gulls and is by a prisoner called Trevor at HMP Peterborough.

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Prison Gulls by prisoner called Trevor at HMP Peterborough. Source: Prison Watch UK

Prison Gulls by prisoner called Trevor at HMP Peterborough. Source: Prison Watch UK

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Unfortunately we don’t have time to include all the great art we saw, so you’ll have to get down to the Southbank Centre before 13 November to see for yourself. You’ll find the exhibition downstairs on the “Spirit Level”.

We’ll leave you now with a few more works from the show. Please let us know what you think in the comments below.

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