Inspired art by detained people

October 21, 2010 — Review

Written by Harmit Athwal

The latest Koestler Trust exhibition of ‘offender’ art is currently on show at the Royal Festival hall, Southbank in London.

Approximately 150 pieces of art created by those held at prisons, removal centres, young offenders’ institutes and secure mental hospitals in the UK and people in contact with the probation service, are being exhibited until 14 November 2010.

Victims of crime curated the exhibition for the first time in its forty-nine year history. The art was innovative and inspiring – from pottery, ceramics, needle work to painting, sculpture and ‘matchstick’ art – the whole gamut. Those denied their everyday freedoms (and more) have created unusual and beautiful works of art, the loss of liberty provoking, sometimes, profound expressions of freedom.

Denise Rhodes, one of the curators spoke to IRR News about the curating process: ‘I realised that there are no “wrong” reasons to choose a piece of work and that the only true criteria are if it speaks to you in some way and moves you. I was blown away by the sheer volume of work, every surface, every wall [of the Koestler Arts Centre at Wormwood Scrubs] was covered with work from prisons and detention centres all over the UK – over 5,000 pieces in every medium imaginable and some you’d never even think of – blankets, sheets, sweat shirts have all been used by artists – possibly because they lack any other or because they are an integral part of the art. I know it will be an amazing show, because the work of the artists almost guarantees it, but I hope our selection and the reasons we chose it make it just a little more special. I know first hand that creative arts can be a life saver and I’m sure they go a long way to preventing re-offending.’

Numerous artworks caught my eye – from the dress made of ‘screws’, the beautiful but useless teapot and Conopoly – a creative and wry take on the popular board game. Another piece, created from matches, was a waltzer, from the fairground, created in its entirety – not just one of the cars but the whole ride, and all from matches! The amount of thought and work that must have gone into that one piece was astonishing.

One of the most extraordinary paintings was a portrait of detainees and staff at Oakington removal centre, where people who have committed no crime are held. The portrait, ‘Diversity of Hope’, was a little haunting, with the detainees and guards ‘jumping’ from the canvas, they were so lifelike. I could only imagine how long it had taken to draw and paint. Were these people still here in the UK, or have the artist and his sitters been deported?[1]

Another interesting aspect of the exhibition is that although it is mainly sponsored and funded by the Co-operative Foundation, ironically additional supporters included Kalyx and G4S. These are two private (for profit) companies that run prisons, immigration removal centres and escorting services across the UK. These companies have probably paid many times more in fines for failures in their contracts with the Home Office than they give to charities such as the Koestler Trust – Kalyx was fined £5 million in 2006 for unspecified performance failures. And a G4S spokesperson told a select committee in 2006 of at least £100,000 fines the year before – surely it must be PR for these companies that want to show a kind and ‘fluffy’ side? And it should also be noted that G4S guards were recently responsible for a deportation in which an Angolan man, Jimmy Mubenga, died at Heathrow airport.

Related links

Koestler Trust

Art by offenders on the Southbank

[1] The painting was awarded the 'Care Principle in memory of Kathy Jones, Rowan House Platinum Award'.

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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