Rudolf Arnheim once said that art is more than means of escaping boredom.
Yet, the biggest challenge facing the Koestler Trust is proving to the public that prison artists are not dabbling in doodling to pass the time. Rather, many are technically gifted creators with unique experiences and a great deal to offer the arts community.
Re:Form, a showcase of work by prisoners, offenders on community sentences, secure psychiatric patients and immigration detainees, is now in its eighth year. The exhibition is currently being hosted by the Southbank Centre and offers visitors the chance to view award-winning art curated by ex-offenders with experience of creativity in the penal system.
Whilst waiting for our tour guide, I was struck by the apposite setting. The vast windowless space of the Royal Festival Hall basement is striking when coupled with the pastel pink walls of a pre-school classroom. Something about the space oddly compliments a set of work which is at once hopeless and hopeful.
Our guide has been trained by the Koestler Trust to navigate members of the public and arts community through the gallery’s most striking work. Friendly and insightful, he offers us a unique insight into the artistic process of the award-winners, as well as contextual understanding of the sheer reach of the project.
“Many of the artists have not committed a crime” he explained, “but are immigration detainees or awaiting to stand trial”.
The exhibit’s opening piece stands proudly at the entrance. Portraying a military bust through discarded objects found by prison officers and passed onto convicts, the ‘Warrior’ is a bold testament to collaboration between prisoners and security staff. The most imposing components of the statuette, such as sharpened implements and serrated brass, are strengthened by its significance: these items are contraband, revealing a level of trust between the artist and guards.
The Warrior is not a lone tribute to resourcefulness. Cost-efficient practices such as match-stick modelling are honed to unbelievable standards of detail and, sometimes, engineering.
Even the exhibit’s more humble offerings paint a unique picture of the everyday items that fail to live up to their assigned uses. Regulation prison soap, Ben explains, “has a distinct smell. No-one wants to use it for long.” The innocuous white bars are instead carved into homages to hope, including freedom, liberty and, of course, topless women.
The tour ends on a colourful note with an untitled painting completed at the notorious Brook Hall immigration removal centre. Staff members speculate that the work depicts a young woman resting during the work day whilst in her country of origin. The style is naïve, but steeped in meaning. In the top corner, what seems like a senseless pattern is actually the universally recognised symbol for the ‘Human Rights Campaign’. Potentially, the artist is one of many asylum seekers fleeing state-inflicted torture or internment.
Sadly, we did not explore one of the most commanding paintings on show. ‘You May Have Your God but I Have my Bloodied Nose’ depicts two men sharing matching outfits, identical mannerisms, and arresting stares obscured by wild brush strokes. The piece is intriguing because the hands act as a detailed focal point while both faces are softly mutilated. The work is stylistically similar to Christian Hook (his work can be found here) with an otherworldly sentiment.
I wanted to know more about the artist but, like many works on show, this painting was submitted anonymously. “Not everyone wants to have their name associated with prison” the curator explained. Sad, but understandable.
In essence, Re:Form has succeeded on two counts. First, it has humanised prison artists in the face of limited resources and unlimited public scepticism.
More importantly, this space has comprehensively amplified the perspectives of those at the heart of the criminal justice system. We’d be foolish not to listen.