Exhibition review: We Are All Human

The annual exhibition by The Koestler Trust, the UK’s best-known prison arts charity, is currently on show at London’s Southbank Centre. We Are All Human: Art by offenders, secure patients and detainees from the 2016 Koestler Awards showcases artwork produced in the UK’s prisons, secure hospitals and immigration removal centres, and by ex-offenders in the community.  For this week’s blog, we asked Outside In artists Daniel Hogg to review the exhibition.

On entering the We Are All Human exhibition you are met by several clocks; from a 5ft high grandfather clock made of matchsticks, in the form of a castle, to three others made of wood and matches. The symbolism of time runs through every Koestler exhibition; being detained in any way heightens your sense of time and how precious it is.

There is a pop up shop selling art from all of the visual art categories, the tip of the iceberg when you read that there are 6,733 entries in 2016. Curating this year is the poet Benjamin Zephaniah, who was in prison himself in the 1970s.  He announces in the exhibition booklet ‘IT’S GOOD ART’, indeed there is no doubting the general standard is very good. Benches are dotted through the space with pairs of headphones attached playing instrumental music, poetry, computer generated music and hip hop and grime.  I was struck by the hip hop tracks Clouds in my Judgement and Life is not a game, unusual titles in the hard man world of hip hop.  Both tracks are self-reflective and poignant as well as being very professionally put together.

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Voting forms are available and you are encouraged to vote for your favourite piece. I was stopped in my tracks by the oil on canvas Comfort Blanket winner of the platinum award in the themed category ‘Comfort’.  A face stares at the viewer with a HMP Prison Services plastic bag being drawn in by the prisoner’s breath. The quality of the painting is such that you have to check carefully that the plastic bag is not real. The shocking irony of the work and its title leave the viewer both impressed with the skill and cold from the message. This painting got my vote, although I noted on my voting card ‘this is a winner amongst thousands of other worthy winners’.

Not surprisingly poetry features large and on the whole the works are reflective.  One poem Animal School from an unnamed patient in Arbury Court secure mental health unit, reminds me of Spike Milligan in both its wacky tone and its intelligence. I join one of the ex-offender led exhibition tours; he talks about individual works and points out things that are easy to miss, like a small wooden padlock complete with wooden key.  He tells us the artist made the lock after being told he would not be able to make it. The artist used a biro spring in the mechanism and the lock actually works!

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Matchsticks, soap and bread have been used to make art in prisons and secure hospitals for decades; people use what is at hand and it is interesting to see how art materials and their abundance or lack of, vary greatly. From a large 3D dinosaur made of plaster by a patient in Broadmoor Hospital to a small cross hatched  biro sketch on a piece of A4 paper showing the cramped conditions prisoners can face, the diversity of entries is truly astounding.

There is a mix of people passing through, from families with children in pushchairs, commuters, to students interested in the subject matter.  I start a conversation with two women in their 20’s.  I fill them in on prison life regarding the difference from bang up prison to open prison.  Having served a four year sentence and worked for the Koestler Trust for over two and a half years, I am keen to put people straight on the misconceptions spread by the UK’s gutter press.  They were very receptive and said they found the standard of work incredible. It always amazes me how much the public is oblivious regarding people being detained, especially when you consider how much of the public purse is spent on prisons, secure hospitals and detention centres. It seems to me there must be a better use of public money in the 21st century

I spend a couple of hours at the exhibition with my wife and ten year old daughter Leila. She votes for a needlecraft work entitled Sweet Sendsation which is a copy of a sweet shop display, skilfully made of felt and thread by Dena from HMP Send.

This exhibition is very emotional in every way.  From the saddest stories to the most positive thing of all, “We Are All Human, and we can all create”.

We Are All Human: Art by offenders, secure patients and detainees from the 2016 Koestler Awards runs until the 13 November at The Spirit Level, Southbank Centre, London. Open daily from 10am till 11pm. Entry is free.

 

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