Art by Offenders*

Volunteer Journalist Isabel

I recently attended an exhibition of Art by Offenders, Secure Patients and Detainees at the Southbank Centre.

Through voluntary work and my time at university I have experience of secure children’s homes, estates and prisons.I have seen a large amount of amazing art work produced in these settings over the years, so with some arguably high expectations I made my way to the Southbank Centre to the exhibition. However, I was completely unprepared for the incredible standard, as well as the wide variety of artwork. There were oil, acrylic and watercolour paintings and various pieces of colourful, laboured over tapestries hanging proudly on the walls. In addition to this were sculptures, poetry, pottery and furniture made from recycled materials; which is even more impressive considering the restrictions to certain materials in the secure setting. The exhibition was overwhelming and clearly suggests that with the correct tools, resources, encouragement and facilitators the unimaginable is achievable.

As an advocate for participatory arts programmes in prisons this celebration of creative work is very encouraging. The prevalent sense of release and freedom in the majority of the work was undeniable; from the paintings inspired by biblical references to the songs and poetry inspired by the artist’s own, often harrowing, experiences. Escapism is depicted in images of funfairs, beaches and a childlike model of a wizard’s house. This exhibition has cemented my belief that detention in the secure setting is a clear removal of freedom but should not be the removal of the right to learn or be creative, artistic and expressive. It is often argued that such participatory arts programmes in secure settings not only have therapeutic benefits, such as profoundly helping and providing focus during the intense time in custody; but in addition to this interestingly there is a firm argument that such exposure to creative arts programmes can have rehabilitative effects, which may reduce the risk of reoffending. Creative work ‘encourages engagement – through art, offenders are helped to produce creative work, the work itself helps produce active citizens and develops a critical attitude in them.’ (Clements, 2004:173)

So if exposure to creative programmes in secure settings can be such an amazing, beneficial and life changing tool – why is this not widely recognised? Furthermore, why does the concept make so many people feel incredibly uncomfortable? One practitioner, Lucy Philips argues: ‘the perception of the artists who facilitate such programmes is that they are primarily involved in artistic not social work.’(Cited in Clements, 2004:172) This reflects a lack of understanding in relation to creative work in secure estates; the social implication of arts practices in prisons is still yet to be accepted.  Arguably, through the creative arts, such as painting, sculpture, singing and drama there is great potential to transform individual thinking and catalyse social change.   

In a society that is saturated by media, negative stereotypes surrounding young people and governments that are desperately trying to please the public by continually presenting short-term quick fix punishment focused solutions, it is almost impossible to imagine a world where these much needed programmes in prisons and secure settings are continually funded, executed, evaluated and genuinely recognised as important.

Not only does the work aim to encourage artists or participants to reassess their own capabilities, self-worth and the future, as we visit such exhibitions as outsiders, we are provided with a very small insight into the fascinating, stark reality of custody. There is an enormous amount we can also learn from the misconceptions of offenders and detainees. The public and those worst affected by the recent riots would probably be quick to dismiss such engaging participatory programmes for people in custody; but if these creative, therapeutic programmes are a contributing aspect to fundamentally assisting vulnerable, complicated and frustrated people to lead positive lives, then they should be an integral part of the rehabilitative journey which theoretically has the ability to benefit society as a whole.

The pieces of artwork on display at the Southbank are the finished, final products of the programmes, but it is the concept of continually creating work, individually and with others, being presented with freedom to be expressive as a process that is the most beneficial aspect to the work. This strengthens the belief that people in these settings should not be written off as beyond help, reach or redemption; without doubt many are phenomenally talented when given the building blocks to increase self-esteem, self-reflect and be included in something to be positively proud of. They then have the power to exceed all expectations and restraints placed upon them because ‘the arts allows and instils confidence in prisoners, challenging their low self-esteem and assuring them that they are worth educating.’ (Clements, 2004:172) What could be a greater achievement for a person in custody,who has often continually and systemically been informed they will amount to nothing in their life, to have their artwork displayed for purchase at The Southbank?

The majority of the artists will not be able to visit the exhibition and see their work being displayed and admired by many and it is a strange thought to imagine that such creativity might not exist if they had taken a different path in life. However one thing is certain, for most the creative work is a product of their currently repressive environment and learning new skills to increase positive self-expression are key elements to changing behaviour and life style. Although this is a complex debate, I believe before we dismiss participatory arts programmes as pointless, ineffective or soft, we should absorb the creative outcomes and monitor the social benefits.

As I left the exhibition for the second time I felt uneasy that in this economic climate funding towards such beneficial work will continue to decrease. As with most aspects of the criminal justice system the contradictions are evident between its attempt to simultaneously punish and support a large number of complicated and vulnerable individuals. The exhibition ignites juxtaposing emotions in the viewer. Afterwards I said to my Father ‘Cool isn’t it?’ he replied ‘Cool… and sad at the same time.’

By Isabel Chapman

*All views expressed in this article are the author’s. IARS accepts no responsibility for the accuracy, completeness, suitability, or validity of any views expressed in these articles and will not be liable for any errors or omissions in this information or any losses or damages arising from its display or use.

CLEMENTS, P. 2004. The Rehabilitative Role of Arts Education in Prison: Accommodation or Enlightenment? International Journal of Art and Design Education, 23.3, pp. 169-178

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1 Comment

  1. A very though provoking article. It has made me want to see this exhibition. It also makes us reflect on the judgments made on what constitutes rehabilitation of offenders an inward change or outward compliance. As an educator I am well aware to the positive results of creativity and self expression; why should this be any different for young offenders?


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