Even with limited materials and social restrictions in place, UK prisoners have shown immense resilience through the artwork they've continued to create during the pandemic. Now French-born, London-based artist Camille Walala and her sister Sarah Ihler-Meyer have curated a new show to share some of their highlights.
On display at Southbank Centre in London, The I and The We is an exhibition by Koestler Arts, a charity that aims to help prisoners, secure patients and detainees lead more positive lives by supporting them to participate and achieve in the arts. Its annual show hopes to increase public awareness and understanding of art by people in the criminal justice system, ultimately reframing the way we see prisoners, and allowing them a creative voice in a system that can often be silencing.
The event, which runs until 5 December 2021, features artwork entered into the 2021 Koestler Awards with Camille and Sarah together choosing over 200 pieces to display from more than 6,400 entries. Past curators have included Antony Gormley, Benjamin Zephaniah, Speech Debelle, Sarah Lucas, Grayson Perry, the families of prisoners, victims of crime, serving female prisoners and graduates of the Koestler Arts mentoring programme.
The selected works come in various mediums across craft, fine art, music, animation and writing, revealing the extraordinary perseverance many within the criminal justice system have maintained during the challenges imposed by Covid-19 and with limited equipment and space to create. They include sculptures carved from prison-issue soap, a dinosaur constructed from scrap paper, a tram and boat painstakingly produced from matchsticks, a painted collage composed of grains of rice and a portrait painted with coffee.
"In an environment which alternates between clinical brightness and dreadful darkness, Koestler brings permission for colour, texture and light. Every prisoner should be given a brush and told to make a mark – perhaps then less would return," says a previously exhibited artist.
The show will also include writing from the third volume of Koestler Voices, a poetry anthology published by Koestler Arts. The book showcases insightful poetry written by those in criminal justice settings during the difficult past two years we have just faced and features a foreword by poet Jackie Kay.
Of the work on display, Camille Walala says: "I found them all quite emotional and inspiring. All the ones we selected give us a strong feeling – these artworks will make you laugh, cry and smile, sometimes all at once."