Art by Offenders at the Southbank Centre is this month’s must-see event for everyone’s cultural calendar. Running until 20 November, it is an exhibition of new work by people who are in the criminal justice system and in secure settings across the UK.
There are over 130 exhibits on display in a variety of different mediums: visual arts, film, music and creative writing. All the work is done by prisoners, young offenders, secure psychiatric patients and immigration detainees as well as those on community sentences, probation and remand.
With such a context it’s hardly surprising that this exhibition, curated by Justices of the Peace from the Magistrates’ Association, has some powerful, emotive and thought-provoking pieces. What is surprising, given that the work is not done by practicing artists, is the sheer professional quality and high-level of talent on display.
There is something very human about this exhibition. It acts as a way of reinforcing the imperfect nature of our own existence. With many pieces toying with philosophical ideas, there can be no passive viewing here. The power in this exhibition is that you are forced to react, to question and to de-code what appears before you. Many of the pieces are hard-hitting: they almost act as a canvas-passageway to the soul, into the darkness of the human psyche.
Cognitive Distortive Reality by an anonymous artist from HM Prison Shepton Mallet in Somerset is one such piece. This work, with a clear subtext of substance misuse, plays with notions of mirror-images, reflection, doubling; ideas of conflict between what we perceive to be true – our ‘cognitive distortion’ – and what reality actually dictates.
Not all pieces are heavy-weight, however. Some of the work on display is remarkably uplifting with undertones of humour, hope, reconciliation and positive reflection.
This exhibition argues for the benefit of art for all those in secure settings, not just for those with mental-health problems. An exhibited artist from HM Prison Albany says ‘I believe art has changed me, and you could say it saved me.’
Art by Offenders is the fourth annual exhibition in an ongoing partnership between the Southbank Centre and the Koestler Trust.
The Koestler Trust is the UK’s best known prison arts charity. Its aim is to help offenders, secure patients and detainees lead more positive lives by motivating them to participate and achieve in the arts.
Tim Robertson, Chief Executive of the Koestler Trust, says: ‘Art has the ability to rehabilitate and transform lives – to give people a purpose, an outlet to express themselves and in many cases a chance to pursue a previously unexplored talent.’