Koestler Trust’s Southbank exhibition

26 Sep 2013

The launch of the Koestler Trust’s annual exhibition of art by prisoners at the Southbank Centre, in London, kicked off on 25th September 2013 with a packed schedule of events, including drama and music a discussion with the curator and Mercury award-winning musician Speech Debelle.

PET funds prisoners to take distance learning courses in creative subjects as well as providing grants for arts materials. Many prisoners and ex-prisoners funded by PET have successfully won the Koestler Awards, giving them a sense of pride, achievement and the motivation to continue with the arts, rather than crime.

The Strength and Vulnerability Bunker

The artwork chosen this year is an explosion for the senses - loud, colourful, packed with objects, paintings, poetry and story-telling curated by Speech Debelle. To help her connect to the world of art, she picked out 8 pieces of music including a version of The Eurhythmics classic “Sweet Dreams” sung by female prisoners and as a result this year’s exhibition feels particularly interactive.

Speech explained why she choose to curate the exhibition: “Art wasn’t something I had connected with before, but I had an awakening while I was doing this. One thing I wanted to do with this was bring it closer to the world I’m in - music.

"The women singing ‘Sweet dreams’ are so positive, it doesn't matter what your circumstances and where you are, you can still be outside yourself. I hope people feel that art is art no matter where it comes from. For prisoners, art is an opportunity for them to be introduced to the art within them.”

Describing why she choose a painting which shows a small dog relieving itself on Superman’s leg, she said “I love that Superman, who is the strongest man in the world can’t use his powers on this sweet, weak little dog. I think it shows that everything that is strong is vulnerable to something.”

The works of art demand an emotional reaction from the audience with elements of anger, sorrow, desperation, joy and humour and staff with direct experience of the criminal justice system are on hand to talk to visitors about the work.

The charity made a decision to positively discriminate people with a criminal record to work as invigilators during the 3 month exhibition and through doing so, aim to change public attitudes on people with convictions.

A lively Q&A on the launch event took place with invigilators, as the audience had an opportunity to speak to a group of people with experience of the criminal justice system. One woman, who got this job through Working Chance, has never been to prison but spoke about the stress of being discriminated against and being written off by potential employers because she has a conviction from 2003.

John, said he has been out of prison for 20 years and was employed for most of that, but since being made redundant in the recession the old conviction is being held against him. He said: “You feel like your outside society, so many others go to work.” He said getting this job and going through the intensive training, which included stints observing staff at the Tate galleries, gave him confidence and been an uplifting experience.

“The best thing about this was when my 18 year old daughter said ‘dad I’m so proud of you’. The benefits of this have spread to my whole family” says John.

Another host and ex-prisoner, Sachap, said: “It is very difficult being tagged as an ex-offender, I’ve tried to get jobs and as soon as they find out about my criminal record they put the phone down. Throughout my training, I felt that I was growing as a person. This is an opportunity to rebuild my life.”     

A new campaign ‘Ban the Box’ seeks to address this discrimination and the audience members said more organisations must hire ex-offenders and speak out about the benefits of doing so.

A shared passion for art

What connects the hosts is that they all have a passion for art. One woman said that by reading about the artists she began to identify with them, and for the first time felt proud to be on the same team and considered an ‘ex-offender’ alongside them, despite having not been to prison.

John said: “Artwork truly brings empathy to someone’s life. In all of us there’s a better person inside.”

Sachap spoke about what art meant to him when he was in prisoner and said he still paints today. He said: “Prison is a grey dismal environment, art adds colour to a bleak existence. Painting gives me so much direction and focus but the first thing that goes when they are welding the axe is education and the arts and they need to rethink that.”