Art from Inside
As our White City neighbour Koestler Trust prepares to open its annual exhibition of art by offenders, We Are All Human, curated by the poet Benjamin Zephaniah, Rebecca Perry looks at some of the staggering results of their work and asks why — when the evidence is there — artistic rehabilitation is such a hard sell.
“In the great prison where I was then incarcerated, I was merely the figure and the letter of a little cell in a long gallery. One of a thousand lifeless numbers, as of a thousand lifeless lives.” Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis – a long letter written to his former lover Lord Alfred Douglas during Wilde’s imprisonment at Reading Gaol – documents the brutality of the Separate System, a calculated regime of hard labour, designed to eliminate any contact between prisoners. At the height of his powers as a playwright prior to his incarceration, Wilde’s physical and mental health suffered badly under such conditions.
The very writing of De Profundis was a sweet stroke of good fortune. Nelson, a new (more liberal) prison governor, observing Wilde’s struggle, proposed writing as a more a cathartic alternative, “for medicinal purposes.” Prison regulations forbade the writing of plays, novels or essays, but inmates had permission to write letters, which would be inspected on completion and the writing materials removed. So, the trick was not to finish it. By writing in the form of a long, unfinished letter, De Profundis would be his property when he was free. Nelson returned the full letter to Wilde on his release in May 1897.
Ceasing to function as a young offenders institute in November 2013, the Gaol (by now HM Prison Reading), was designated as an arts venue for the Reading 2016 Year of Culture programme. C Wing, where Wilde sat out his time, is currently home to an exhibition by photographer Nan Goldin, inspired by the playwright. Part of Artangel’s Inside project, it also features work by Marlene Dumas, Steve McQueen, Wolfgang Tillmans and Ai Weiwei. Some writing inspired by De Profundis can be heard here.
The Boy, collage by Nan Goldin created for Artangel's Inside exhibition in Reading Goal. (James Lingwood)
The Boy, collage by Nan Goldin created for Artangel's Inside exhibition in Reading Goal. (William Eckersley)
There’s something powerful about a space designed solely for punishment and segregation being reclaimed and renamed in this way. No small irony that Goldin has plastered the cell walls with provocative nudes of her friend, the German actor Clemens Schick – her nod to Wilde’s love for Lord Alfred Douglas, which saw him jailed for gross indecency. An edited version of Jean Genet’s only film, Un Chant d’Amour, also forms part of the exhibition. A depiction of homosexual desire in a French prison, it was banned at the time of release, and cements the feeling that this project is giving life and voice to those who were previously silenced and censored.
Admirable and exciting though this innovative use of space may be, the truth is that art brought into prison by celebrated artists and photographers is one thing, but art created in prison, by its inhabitants, is quite another. The question of whether or not creative endeavours in punitive establishments are justifiable, worthwhile and, above all else, deserved, is contentious to say the least. Despite a wealth of evidence to the contrary the use of the arts as a rehabilitative measure in prisons is still broadly perceived as a luxury, not worth the investment and, most crucially, delivered to those not worthy of the privilege. That people in prison don’t deserve access to the arts is the most common complaint I hear levelled against charities that specialise in such creative interventions. But, when failures in rehabilitation inevitably lead to reoffending – steady or increased crime rates, damage to communities – it’s hard to see where the point is being made. When we live in times where petitions need to be launched to ensure prisoners can still access books, criminals sitting around painting and writing poems is a hard sell.
Koestler Arts Centre sign at HM Prison Wormwood Scrubs shot by Geza Singer.
Challenging times for the arts in secure settings became tougher under austerity, predictably resulting in funding being slashed and projects cut. Focus has shifted to evidence-based outcomes (payment by results contracts in probation work being a prime example) and results that can be quantified and measured. Getting an offender into work on release is the measure of success, whether or not that person has modified the behaviours that led to their imprisonment in the first place, or whether they have the emotional wellbeing, social skills, stable mental/physical health, resources and stability to maintain it. The arts, with their protracted and complicated aims to secure ‘shifts in personal narrative’ – where a person serving a prison sentence learns to fundamentally change the way they see the world and their place in it, ultimately moving on to a crime free life – just don’t really tick the boxes. These ‘soft’ outcomes, with their qualitative rather than quantitative measures, are a bit too slippery to get a handle on.
To say, then, that the Koestler Trust, the UK’s best-known prison arts charity, has a tougher job of ingratiating itself in the hearts and minds of the public than other charities would be an understatement. Situated in a charmingly ramshackle three-story house on the periphery of Wormwood Scrubs, a prison notable for being built by the very inmates it was due to incarcerate, it began its work of encouraging creativity and the acquisition of new skills as a means to rehabilitation in 1962.
Fruits of My Labour, made in HM Prison Grendon, winner of Koestler Trust's Transformation Commended Award for Sculpture.
At the heart of the charity is the annual Koestler Awards, which invites entries from prisoners and young offenders, those in secure training centres, secure children’s homes, immigration removal centres, high or medium security psychiatric hospitals, and those on probation. Each year awards and feedback are given to more than 3,000 people submitting work across 52 categories of fine art, craft and design, performance and audio, film and animation and writing. In excess of £30,000 is awarded in cash prizes ranging from £20 to £100, and 80% of entrants receive written feedback on their work from the category’s judge, a member of the Koestler Arts Team or a volunteer. Entering the Koestler Awards also gives eligibility for Koestler Mentoring, which has produced the now practising artists Julio Cesaro Osorio and Shaun Attwood.
Last year I spent three months volunteering at the Koestler Trust, logging work and giving feedback on the written entries. The house slowly filled with envelopes, boxes of all sizes, oddly-shaped packages – everything from two giant robot sculptures to miniscule carvings and embroidery. Each one individually logged, tagged and stored with the other media in its category.
Sun Rise, London CRC Probation Service, winner of the Monument Trust Scholarship 2014 and Bronze Award for Painting.
I unwrapped a sculpture of a shoe, with a small note tucked inside: "This is the first thing I’ve ever finished. Thank you!" I read a sequence of poems – one of the most astonishing collections of writing I’ve come across – charting the loss of a son to a brain tumour. The range of the work was stunning, from biographical works detailing years of childhood abuse, loss, and time in care, to murals dedicated to a beloved dog. I was told that common themes emerged every year; food always features heavily. Most memorably a joke about the poor quality of prison food made manifest in a glossy ceramic shit on a plate, complete with knife and fork, and a dream of a fry up in needlework. Declarations of love, for partners, children and pets, found their way into sculptures, poems and an embroidered waistcoat. They were all letters of sorts, sent in the hope that someone might hear.
From those very rare establishments with any arts facilities to speak of, it was possible to receive work of stunning quality. To this day I regret not summoning the money from somewhere to buy a beautifully accomplished vase. From most establishments, materials were limited to paper and paint, papier mâché or a canvas. The matchstick model category is taken very seriously. Speaking of which, there’s nothing quite like a matchstick replica of Bath Abbey to speak of patience.
Bath Abbey, created in HMP Isle of Wight (Albany) and winner of Koestler Trust's Commended Award for Matchstick Models in 2015.
This year’s Koestler Trust award exhibition, imploringly titled We Are All Human, is curated by the poet Benjamin Zephaniah – one-time young offender and named in 2008 by The Times as one of Britain's top 50 post-war writers. The winning and commended work is lovingly framed and displayed by the Koestler staff and available for sale to the public. The money generated by sales is split between the artist, the Trust, and the charity Victim Support, with most entrants reinvesting their winnings into art materials or courses. The exhibition opens at the Southbank Centre on 15th September.
Those who advocate for the transformative power of the arts in secure settings report that they teach patience, not to mention dedication, team work, positive expression of thoughts and feelings, meeting deadlines, self-belief and discipline, personal agency, efficacy and identity. The Arts Alliance, with more than 470 members working with around 40,000 individuals in the criminal justice system each year, tirelessly promotes the value of arts-based interventions. So too are numerous tiny charities and organisations around the UK refusing to give up on the arts.
With average reoffending rates for adults sitting steadily at around 26% (60% where the sentence served was less than 12 months) and 68% for young offenders, it’s clear that something badly needs to be done. Looked after children (those in state care) make up 33% of boys and 61% of girls in custody, and breaking the cycle of reoffending is a huge challenge. Charities offering access to creative interventions can be a lifeline – a chance to be seen and heard, to put a small, tangible stamp on endless identical days.
Homepage image by Richard Gray.
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