Art by offenders – a therapeutic approach to rehabilitation
RE:FORM is the UK’s annual national showcase of arts by prisoners, offenders on community sentences, secure psychiatric patients and immigration detainees. It is the eighth exhibition in an ongoing partnership between the Koestler Trust and Southbank Centre. This year’s show was curated by the Southbank Centre and the Koestler Trust.
I must admit with regret, that I was somewhat disappointed with this year’s 2015 exhibition, however I must stress that my thoughts are in no way intended to cause offence or undermine the extreme talent and commitment of the entrants which should only be in my view, fully respected and commended. I have wondered what caused me to form this opinion, whether it was because each year I eagerly await and anticipate visiting the exhibition as a highlight of my cultural calendar or that indeed I felt disappointed because I, like any other visitor, am entitled to feel such feelings of disappointment if indeed they are true to myself at the time despite with regret that I felt this way.
Obviously art can be, and mostly is to the majority of those with any interest in it, a personal experience that can evoke a range of feelings and emotions at any one time which in turn can also change over time. Art is a unique entity that comes in various mediums and can provoke, enthuse or stimulate reactions and responses that can offend, heal or make one react in an unexpected way, all of which make art quite a powerful medium.
Art and taste is a subjective platform in which pictures, visuals, statements and sound can be made in such a way that only if you engage in the stimuli can you can see, feel or get a sense of what is trying to be portrayed by the artist.
I took the opportunity to read some of the comments made by the invigilators and came to a deeper understanding and insight which was helpful for me to gain a wider context and a sense of the individual's frame of reference.
For example on reflection from the Art by Offenders Exhibition curated by Sarah Lucus 2012, which in my view was phenomenal and what struck me was the sheer talent that was submitted which I personally perhaps even selfishly took great pleasure from visiting on two occasions. I was totally hooked and inspired by what and how the art was exhibited by Sarah Lucus. I felt a depth from the entrants. I learned and was left pondering about some of the entrants’ inner worlds which I found interesting, especially those from the inmates, the younger entrants and those who were in psychiatric settings. Again, these were only my personal preferences of interest at the time and I remember being in awe of the raw “untrained” talent which was heightened by how creatively the exhibition had been put together. On reading the curators perspectives I gained a new understanding in what and how they commented about the work from their artistic perspective.
During the 2012 exhibition, one thing that I found fascinating, was that the majority of entrants chose for their work to remain anonymous in contrast to where I was all about “celebrating the talent” and hard work that had gone into the exhibition. Interestingly, at the time of visiting the exhibition, I saw this almost as if the entrant's work was being subjected to another, almost silent punitive measure that had been imposed on them by another “system” rather than that the quality and expertise of their work was not being fully acknowledged as a result of the these entrants being “offenders”, however on reflection I appreciate the offender's rights and respect of confidentiality and anonymity as to why such was not revealed.
The entrants work had been anonymised by numbers, however for some reason my enthusiasm seemed to want to promote the clients in more of a human, personal perspective identifying entrants names and to include of a synopsis and narrative about the entrants backgrounds. Again, here I identify that my social interest and professional background are equally important, the artistic perspective of the work arises and an overwhelmingly conscious perspective to acknowledge and celebrate a holistic approach arises. After all – Art by Offenders is an art exhibition which for me, what I find so exciting is the culmination of the undiluted art perspective along with what I always take away, the social and deeply human approach to being and therapy and rehabilitation. Hence my enthusiasm about the annual exhibition.
It was not so much of a surprise to see the quality, standard, theme, diversity and content of the entrants work but more so for me as I wandered around the exhibition, that the overall majority of work was labelled this year as "anonymous". This in itself interested me and left me wondering more about why the majority of these talented individuals chose not to sign or identify themselves and take ownership of their personal and expressive art work.
As this is the fifth year that the prestigious and highly recognised Koestler Awards have held this exhibition at the Southbank Centre, London, I wondered was this not a secure enough platform for these untrained artists to identify themselves through their artwork. Surely the Koestler Awards portrays its entrants work with dignity and well meaning, as an exhibition to highlight the talent from a spectrum of people that for whatever reason have found themselves to be detained as prisoners, detainees or inhabitants of secure units.
I wonder if here too, in the realm of the Arts world if there is a double standard, a judgment, even fear, an insecurity, a class separation which appears to have unfolded also to the unassuming visitor to such an exhibition. I wonder if there is an underlying sense of mistrust, fear and of danger...
On reflection, I have decided to focus not so much on the context of the artwork, but this time from a person centred perspective, exploring some of the core conditions of this approach and the impact that this exhibition may have unconsciously fostered for further thought...
For me, the Art by Offenders exhibitions highlight a well-meaning and deservedly sensitive and respectful portrayal of the lives, feelings and emotions of the people who find themselves behind bars, locked doors and in the “system.” However, from this exhibition, I am left with feelings of another perspective, of a deeper curiosity of what for me appears to be a further layer of emotional expression which seems to have revealed itself to me.
Thoughts of a social context, a formal context, restraint cross my mind. I wonder how “secure” these detainees feel, to choose not to identify themselves through such rich and wonderful art, which in itself appears to be fully accepted by the wider community as Art. However, I wonder, is it that these untrained artists feel that their work will be accepted and understood, but yet they themselves perhaps make a judgment about themselves as being not acceptable to the audience, being judged by the public, wider society who come to view their work.
Despite the fact that the public, myself included, wait in anticipation each year, to make an informed choice and decision to visit and view the work of the entrants, yet somehow this still may not mean enough for the artists behind the work to reveal a crucial part of themselves and name their identity. I wonder about the conditions of worth of some of the entrants?
I wonder what this really says. Is this a true, real reflection of the divide between those on the inside, those detained within societies, subcultures, institutions compared to those “on the outside” - those with the ability of choice with regards to their freedom and not having the misfortune of being incarcerated? I wonder about people being incarcerated by their actions, rightly or wrongly, those incarcerated within their mental and physical health. Entrapment and being entrapped...
I wonder what this says about people, in this case the entrants, being given the opportunity to freely express themselves through art and the obviously clear therapeutic benefits and release of thought and emotion, that somehow, this exhibition left me this time, with deeper feelings of curiousness of what appears to remain behind the exhibition. Perhaps an unspoken message or statement that may need some reflection and attention.
What does this reveal about the entrant’s identity? Judgment or being judged, by whom? By themselves? I wonder where the entrant’s internal locus of evaluation lies within this context. And how perhaps self-fulfilling prophesy comes into play here. I make reference to one entrant’s work whereby he expressed the phrase “once a con, always a con...”
I wonder too about the audience I see around me viewing this exhibition. I make judgments about who they are, why are they here. I even find myself asking the question, do they even deserve to be here? It fascinates me. I wonder what gives me the feeling of righteousness to be here, to be amongst what is for me such personal representations of artwork, extensions of the private and valuable self of others, perhaps less fortunate as they are behind bars of sorts. So many questions, thoughts. Wider reflections to consider.
I thought the titles of the work were equally interesting. The titles of the work seemed to replace that of the majority of the entrant’s identities. I wonder about the time spent on entrants naming their work in comparison to the importance for me, of the entrants revealing and naming themselves. I found myself being curious about the entrants, as if something of them was still missing and instead looking for meaning in comparison with the titles of the work in the absence of their identity.
I make comparisons with this year’s exhibition to last year’s exhibition. I think about the relational depth that the audience has with the entrants. I think about identity, the self, parts of the self, and the existential self. What a person, the entrant is prepared to reveal. Is it ok, is it safe to reveal, to express themselves through their art work, but not to reveal their personal identity, their name but curiously instead to take time to name the work of each piece with such thought?
I again recognised the immense talent that the exhibition clearly portrayed, however a part of me left with a sense of sadness; as if the exhibition, the platform may not have been a wholly, equally, secure setting for the majority of the individuals to have felt safe enough to reveal their name, a valuable part of their identity.
I do recognise however, that to be fully congruent, I too have to reflect on my apparent need and curiosity for the importance of the entrants to reveal and name this part of their personal identity. Because a name is just a name, I would not necessary make a connection with an entrant's name, it may have no meaning to me in particular, it would probably make no difference as to the artist’s work compared to the personable story behind the entrant, such as where and why the entrant came to be detained by Her Majesty.
What lies within a name, a label, a number? I wonder if it is that I would be proud to be able to exhibit the entrant’s self-worth, ability, recognition and potential of worth and growth? So is that more about me, my identity and worth or that of the entrants?”
About the author
Ros Barthelmy, founder of Nurcha.it works creatively with various groups of marginalised of people. Nurcha.it works therapeutically with social issues including conflict, mental health and substance misuse by offering individual, family and group support.
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