‘Inside’, Southbank Centre

‘Inside’, an exhibition of artwork by prisoners and secure unit inmates, opens with some disturbing statistics. The UK prison population has increased 82% in the last 30 years, giving us the highest imprisonment rates in Europe. Prisoners, meanwhile, get an average of 30 minutes per day outside in the fresh air. In these times of falling budgets and increased overcrowding, it seems there’s never been a better moment to appreciate the Koestler Trust, a charity which works with inmates to improve their lives through the positive power of art and creativity. Their annual awards program makes up this free exhibition at the South Bank Centre – and it’s a thought provoking, moving display.

This year’s show, the tenth at the South Bank Centre, has been curated by Antony Gormley, whose participation is born of a genuine passion to engage with the Koestler Trust and their work. “Even hearing in the news about drug abuse, self harm, cuts to education programmes and demoralized and overworked staff in overcrowded prisons did not prepare me for the reality of life inside” he says.

The stylistically diverse artwork in this show (which, in addition to drawing and painting, includes sculpture, video and sound pieces) springs from the single word ‘Inside’, given to inmates as a starting point. Many are realistic depictions of prison life. In one, a sketch of a cell is overlaid with a hastily penned description of ‘A Typical Day in Jail’ – “Get up. Eat. Go to art. Watch TV. Shower. Phone call. Sleep.” Elsewhere, a gentle watercolour of a meal tray feels calmer and more resigned – yet the tray partially hides a folded up visiting order and a half-written letter to Mum. ‘Dear Mum, I hope-’ it says before trailing off. This person can’t find the words to sum up their feelings in a letter to their nearest and dearest, it seems. It’s an economical painting in visual terms, but like so many in this show, it stops us in our tracks with its directness, inspiring empathy and reflection.

Many other artworks here are less directly observational and more escapist in their flavour, exploring interior worlds, surreal expressions of private angst, or abstractions which soothe the mind. Some pieces (for example a particularly harrowing hanged man sketch) are visceral and disturbing, hinting at tormented lives and serving to remind us that almost 20 percent of prisoners are suffering from mental health issues.

The pictures on display here are, as would befit a show curated by a Turner Prize winner, handled with Fine Art reverence, and framed up beautifully. This inevitably creates a strange and interesting tension with many of the sketches, whose materials turn out to be much humbler than their mounts. Many are made in blue ballpoint, on cheap file paper with holes punched in the side. Some look like they have literally been screwed up and flattened out again. This is part of the unique vibe of this show, and serves to remind us that this is work made in unusual, and probably quite challenging, circumstances. The work isn’t personally credited to the makers either, an essential move made to preserve anonymity of the inmates, yet one which further adds to the sense of conflict between the origin of these artworks and their pleasant, art gallery destination.

At the far end of the room sit two print browsers full to bursting with more artworks – all the pieces for sale, mostly at surprisingly low prices. Looking through the extra works which didn’t make it onto the wall, it’s clear there’s a well of visual ideas, talent and enthusiasm amongst prisoners which literally overflows from this exhibition. It may be anonymous work, coming towards us from a void somewhere between despair and hope, yet this show does an important job of bearing witness, and allowing prisoners’ voices and stories to be heard.

‘Inside’, Spirit Level, Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, London. Admission free.
21st Sept – 15th Nov 2017

Also check out: Koestler Scotland Exhibition. Tramway Glasgow. 10th Nov – 22nd Dec 2017


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