On Monday I went to see the Art by Offenders exhibition, which is on at the Southbank Centre until 7th November.
All exhibits are chosen from the thousands of entries sent into the The Koestler Trust from people who are currently inmates of prisons, young offenders institutions, secure hospitals and immigration detention centres across the UK, as well as offenders supervised by probation and youth offending services.
The curators of the exhibition had all been victims of, or had been affected by crime. As a group there were given training in curating and chose which works to exhibit from the thousands of entrants. Walking around the display, here and there, there are comments written from the curators about the pieces, why they were chosen and sometimes what the curator thought the artist was saying. Sometimes these are insightful and give a glimpse at how emotional this project must have been for them. Other times they come across as a bit patronising.
There was a wide range of different mediums from painting, drawing and collage to match stick models, carving and sculpture, documentary video, animation and musical composition.
What struck me was the two distinct types of subject matter addressed in the art. Some were positive visions, real or from the imagination; landscapes, fairies, portraits. I guess making these works of art provides some time for mental escapism. Other pieces addressed incarceration head on. One artist comment explained that they were encouraged to look for art everywhere, and so they made a to scale drawing of their cell door; blue, cold and unmovable. Another piece that struck me was a drawing done as a prisoner imagined what it would be like to be released and met by someone who loved him. The inference was that he felt there was no-one to meet him. In the drawing though, he was hugging this mystery person tightly, with tears of loss and gain rolling down his cheeks.
The documentary videos were mostly shot in women’s prison. Most of those speaking to camera were very young but spoke with real wisdom. It struck me how many had said that prison had really opened up opportunities for them through the education and training they had been able to do and through they time they had had to reflect. I felt uncomfortable hearing that. I hate prisons and all they stand for. I hate the focus on punishment as opposed to rehabilitation. These women needed opportunity yes. It’s disturbing that prison offered them more opportunity then they had access to in their lives outside.
It’s a really brilliant exhibition. I recommend you go and see it. Also, you get to vote for the work you like best. Your comments get sent to the artist. (you can vote for as many as you like).