A successful exhibition of ‘offender art’. But what’s ahead?

The Koestler Trust’s 50th annual exhibition in London of art by prisoners, immigration detainees and secure mental patients closes this weekend. What will Free have shown us? And what’s ahead for its prize-winners? Review

The Koestler Trust’s yearly exhibition of works moved to the Royal Festival Hall in 2008. On display there over the last three months have been works by the sector that is a little sweepingly referred to as ‘offenders’, all of them in receipt of awards given by the Trust. The day I visited was a surreal one on which to look at artwork depicting, among other things, the anguish of long years of incarceration. The National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain was holding auditions next to the exhibition space: well-appointed children in blazers were being shepherded in and out of side rooms every few minutes, their violins sawing out over the sculptures.

It is the Trust’s 50th birthday this year, and the project seems never to stop growing. The trust was founded by Artur Koestler in 1962, partly as a response to his time spent in jails including during the Spanish Civil War, and now runs a mentoring scheme, pairing artists with prisoners reaching the ends of their sentences, as well as the yearly prize-giving and show. The Trust’s list of exhibition openers includes cultural personalities such as Grayson Perry, Will Self and Benjamin Zephaniah; artist Sarah Lucas curated this year’s exhibition.


Painting by an ex-prisoner from HMP Blantyre House, on the Koestler Trust's mentoring scheme.

Lucas has said that she looked for ‘compatibilities and jolts’ in assembling the works – and certainly, while there are echoes between many of them, there is also great variance in the subjects and sensibilities on display. As visitors, we know what is unusual about this exhibition, and it is hard not to view the works in the light of that ‘offender’ context. Fortunately, then, it is a light that is often misleading or distracting: this context is in many cases apparently absent, and only faint or implicit in others. Bob Marley’s face features in many of the paintings – but this is only possibly related to the star’s own spell in jail. It may be utterly irrelevant. The viewer has to keep an open mind.

A handful of works that do tackle the subject – and boldly – stand out. ‘SAME S**T DIFFERENT DAY’ opens with a play on that expression: a sculpture in papier mâché, it shows a prisoner sitting on a toilet. We notice immediately, though, that the man’s head is in his hands, his face invisible. Anguish slips in under the humour, and a chilling irony steals over the diminutive piece, which has tricked us with a faux naivety. The same posture – a face desperately held in hands – is depicted in ‘The Pain I Cause’. This time it’s a painting, the face uncomfortably close and expanding outside its frame. Grief is thus represented as claustrophobic, overflowing, belying the canvas’s restrained, delicate greys.

Elsewhere, we see techniques that might be encouraged by long, understimulated days. Repetitive patterns requiring feats of patience are a theme – such as in ‘Pencil Sharpening Ring’, from an unnamed prisoner in HMP Peterborough: a rather beautiful, many-petalled flower made of glazed, multi-coloured sharpenings. One of the most impressive pieces, ‘Resurrection’ by David Janza of HMP Brixton, is an intricate drawing in which the lines are made up of lines from the Book of Matthew incised into the paper in biro. A muscular Jesus pulls himself up from the ground, every smudge of cloud, or grain of wood on the cross, another snatch of the gospel, and Christ’s hair a thick tumble of the words of his name repeated hundreds of times over.

Sometimes it is only the works’ labelling that gives away their institutional background. The majority of labels are marked ‘anonymous’ (how many artists in mainstream society choose to remove their names from exhibited works?), while a prize named the ‘Jeffrey Archer Gold Award for Matchstick and Mixed Media Models’ could only be a part of this exhibition. Other award names reflect positive values that the prizes are used to encourage: ‘Pencil Sharpening Ring’, mentioned above, won the Rethinking Recycling Highly Commended Award for Recycling or Papier Mâché. The context in which the works are done is often reflected in the materials: previous exhibitions have featured a sculpture of a head made of discarded Bic razors melted into shape with a cigarette lighter, and an intricate engraving on an immensely long, uncut bar of prison soap.


Winner of the Platinum Award for Portraiture, by an ex-prisoner from HMP Ford.

Holiday camps

The advantages the prizes and mentoring scheme offer offenders seem clear: self-expression, new and positive relationships, re-integration, validation. So, what are organisations that offer this sort of support up against? The wind always seems to be changing: Jack Straw was famously weak in the face of bad headlines (there is nothing unexpected about the Sun and the Daily Mail jumping at chances to complain about ‘pampered lags’ – the point should be not to bow to it), while the Tories are shape-shifting, sometimes in unexpected directions. Theresa May had to take up again Michael Howard’s cry of “Prison works” in the face of her colleague Kenneth Clarke’s too-progressive idea of a ‘rehabilitation revolution’. Two years later, Clarke was replaced in the job by Chris Grayling, and many feared a new toughening: he promised to “stop our jails being holiday camps” on taking office. But at the party conference in October Grayling struck a more moderate note than expected, saying he intended to focus on delivering “the imperative of rehabilitation”. (Fears remain, of course: Grayling told MPs this week that they could still prevent prisoners from voting in elections, despite a ruling from the European Court of Human Rights. But the word ‘rehabilitation’ is still better than ‘retribution’.)

One way he hopes to achieve that is with mentoring schemes in prison, in which older prisoners are assigned young inmates. But while helping prisoners inside is step in the right direction, it is when they come out that they need most support in re-integrating into society, in following a new and positive path. Hence the structure of the Koestler Trust’s mentoring scheme: it is prisoners and young offenders reaching the ends of their sentences that get a chance at working under the tutelage of an artist-mentor. Significantly, these artists are not just using their existing skills, but are trained as mentors, and work in combination with probation services. They provide the first mentoring sessions while the mentee is still in custody, bridging the gap between incarceration and life outside. Grayling has had ample opportunity to take note of this: he opened this year’s exhibition.

A last and important point about the Justice Secretary’s plan to focus on rehabilitation: he said at the party conference that he would push forward a payment-by-results scheme, where private providers like G4S are only paid for their ‘offender management’ if reoffending is seen to fall by a certain margin. Concerns over the encroachment of private security firms into public life aside, this still forms part of an ‘evidence-based’ culture that, while understandable from the point of view of proving the worth of a project, excludes many arts-based activities outright. The emotional impact on an ex-offender’s life of a relationship with an artist cannot be proven: it is felt. But the case for this kind of work should be no less strong for that. We now read that Grayling has paused to reconsider the ‘strategic direction’ of the payment-by-results scheme. This could be a chance to reassess. The idea of taxes only being spent on that has a clear and defined impact may be attractive to voters, but it should not ignore the more personal side of the story. It is people, after all, that we are talking about. It is individuals that require investment, not statistics.

About the author

Ollie Brock is a Translator in Residence at the Free Word Centre in London, and a front-page editor at openDemocracy.