Until the 15th November two remarkable exhibitions at London’s Supreme Court and the South Bank Centre are shining a light on artwork produced in prisons across the UK.
The free exhibitions are run by the Koestler Trust an organisation which, from its base at HMP Wormwood Scrubbs, has promoted art in prisons for more than 50 years.
Sally Taylor, the Trust’s chief executive and a Teddington resident for over 25 years explains why it is worth a visit. `It will confound all your expectations of what you might think prison art to be and you will be talking about if for a very long time to come.’
All 30 artworks in the Supreme Court Exhibition `Story Time’ have been created by young offenders.
A 1.5m high knight built from the wreck of an old car and a butterfly made from nuts and bolts share exhibition space.
Across the river at the South Bank Centre, the second exhibition `Inside’ curated by Anthony Gormley, famous for his Angel of the North sculpture, has drawn 20,000 visitors since it opened in September. One visitor describing their recent visit said: “Incredible, so empowering and so so important that these are seen and heard.”
Exhibits – paintings, sculptures, songs, poems and life stories – have been selected from 7000 pieces of art submitted in response to a competition Anthony Gormley and the Trust announced to prisoners across the UK in 2016.
As well as looking at the award winning art, visitors can speak to ex-offenders about life inside.
At a time when the chief inspector of prisons’ annual report makes uncomfortable reading, Gormley says: “The exhibits show an extraordinary resilience of spirit in desperate conditions.”
Sally Taylor said: “Although some prisons have good art rooms, the current staff shortages, mean a higher percentage of work this year has been completed in a cell.” Despite this, and limited resources, the submissions are 5% higher than last year. Why?
“To me, just to win anything made my life so much better, I really started feeling better in myself and proud – something I hadn’t felt for a very long time” revealed a Koestler award winner from HM Prison Peterhead.
Much of the work, as was the curator’s wish, is a powerful reflection on mental health. As well as awards and feedback, taking part in the competition can sometimes be a stepping stone to a second chance.
The exhibitions’ impact is extensive.
Words from Fiona Kingston