Art by Offenders: Strength, Vulnerability, and Forgiveness

Above image: Lost Fruit | Thornford Park Hospital, The Tolkien Trust Silver Award for Drawing

The Koestler Trust’s sixth annual UK showcase this year takes the form of ‘The Strength and Vulnerability Bunker’, curated by Mercury prize-winning rapper, Speech Debelle. The national exhibition, which is moulded yearly by a different group or individual, displays work by prisoners, offenders on community sentences, secure mental health patients and immigration detainees. 

This year’s theme – the relationship between strength and vulnerability – was chosen as it threads together the work on display with Debelle’s music. Debelle’s political interventions (which include three albums pinpointing areas of social justice and injustice), make her the perfect candidate to provide a voice for those whose lives are being transformed by the power of art.

“The Koestler Awards represent an injection of creativity, humanity and empowerment into the closed world of prisons” – Stephen Shaw, Prisons and Probation Ombudsman.

This year’s exhibition has some strong, undeniably prison-centric, work. ‘Untitled’ by Patrick from HMP Leeds starkly shows the divide between the inside and outside. In it, a figure looks solemnly (although this is only an assumption, as all we can see is the back of his head) through the bars of what we can ascertain to be his cell. On the ‘outside’, skyscrapers loom above luscious green trees and two magpies – which symbolise joy in the well-known rhyme – perch on the prison boundary. There are, however, signs of life and hope within the confines of this prisoner’s cell. A butterfly rests on an arm, and two ladybirds and a spider scale the inside of the bars.

Sleeping Brunnhilde | Derbyshire Probation Service, The Anne Peaker Platinum Award for Sculpture

Sleeping Brunnhilde | Derbyshire Probation Service, The Anne Peaker Platinum Award for Sculpture

‘Not of the World’, by an inmate at HM Prison Cookham Wood, reflects “how far away the earth is when you’re locked up. Also, how far anything and anyone are from your reach in jail.” These are the artist’s own words. In the piece, a figure, plagued by darkness, looks longingly (again, maybe my assumption) towards the whole of the earth which sits uncomfortably out of reach on the horizon line.

These two pieces quite obviously describe feelings of isolation, incarceration, and the loss of freedom. But there are more subtle pieces. ‘First Hour’, by an artist from Prison Littlehey and made entirely from chicken bones and glue, represents the feelings of a prisoner during the first hour of being ‘inside.’ Crouched over, the perfectly executed figure is both strong and incredibly vulnerable at the same time. Single chicken bones are extremely robust, but put them together as has been done with this sculpture, and they are fragile; the piece could topple or crack at any moment.

The Dancers | HMP Brixton, The Patrick Holmes Platinum Award for Oil or Acrylic

The Dancers | HMP Brixton, The Patrick Holmes Platinum Award for Oil or Acrylic

Similarly to ‘First Hour’, other works on display are made out of any material that the artists could get their hands on. ‘Escape with a Book’, by an artist at HM Prison and Young Offender Institution Exeter is made entirely from soap, with the hands stained using tea bags. It was probably carved, as suggested by the exhibition host (an ex-offender employed to enhance the audience’s experience whilst gaining CV building skills), using a smuggled razor blade – something which makes it all the more intriguing. The artist was prepared to create this piece regardless of the rules.  ‘Sleeping Brunnhilde’,  by an artist from the Derbyshire Probation Service, was created using bread and PVA glue; such simple materials.

The works on display were chosen from more than 7000 pieces of art created by prisoners, secure patients and immigration detainees, and each and everyone follows a personal journey reflecting on the meaning of both strength and vulnerability. The arts have been proven, more so in recent years, to be an incredibly effective way of engaging with offenders who are feeling isolated or alienated from mainstream education and employment.

Creativity flourishes in prisons, more so than in any other institution; perhaps as a result of the physical incarceration.  This exhibition provides an opportunity for the artists to have their talents showcased, and is an example of how prisoners work through their feelings – in this instance strength, vulnerability and forgiveness – as part of their rehabilitation. Creativity and self-expression can often be the key to increasing self-esteem and self-efficacy; all proven factors in reducing rates of re-offending. Not to mention, the works in this exhibition are absolutely fantastic to look at – these artists are incredibly talented. Maybe once they have served their sentences, they can shake off that label of ‘prisoner’ ‘convict’ or even ‘ex-criminal’ and ‘ex-offender’ and instead be known more positively as ‘artists.’

Garden of Eden, HM Prison Styal, Dalrymple Bronze Award for Sculpture

Garden of Eden, HM Prison Styal, Dalrymple Bronze Award for Sculpture

The exhibition is running until 1 December at the Southbank Centre, London. Click here for opening times and other information. 

Exhibited artists on what the words ‘strength’ and ‘vulnerability’ mean to them

“Without strength, you can’t go on. Without vulnerability, you can’t grow as a person. “

“Being able to take a ‘warts and all’ look at myself through art does leave me feeling vulnerable to emotions I’ve closed off for years. However, I feel I’m in a safe environment with supportive peers and tutors. That is the strength of art.”

“Strength means to me, someone who keeps going and keeps trying, no matter what obstacles they may face. Vulnerability means to me, someone who is human. Everyone is vulnerable and we all deal with it every day.”

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