The 48th annual Koestler Awards exhibition at the Southbank Centre

By Kirstie Brewer | 18 November 2009
a painting of a padded cell

(Above) Drug Induced Reality, Steve Twigg, HM Prison Hull, Humberside, Charles Brooks Highly Commended Award for Oil or Acrylic. Koestler Awards

Exhibition: Koestler Awards 2009 – Art By Offenders, Secure Patients and Detainees, Southbank Centre, London, until December 6 2009

The 48th annual Koestler Awards exhibition provides a unique and thought provoking insight into the lives and minds of those behind bars in a historic 2009 show which is the UK's first national art exhibition to be curated by prison inmates.

Organised by prison arts charity The Koestler Trust, the exhibition showcases award-winning artworks created by inmates of prisons, young offender institutions, secure hospitals and immigration removal centres across the UK, as well as offenders supervised by probation and youth offending services and British prisoners abroad.

a painting of a basket of eggs

(Above) Feeling Fragile, Mr Foley, HM Prison Stafford, Bronze Award for Pastels. Koestler Awards

The array of film, music, writing and visual art on display boldly invites visitors to engage with a different side of offending, consider the potential of the contributors above and beyond the confines of prison.

A prison art exhibition can inevitably end up with a masculine feel, as men make up 95% of the UK's prison population. But this year the selection of works has a distinctly female perspective, as all six curators were chosen from women nearing the end of their sentences at HM Prison Downview in Surrey.

"Their selections feel warmly personal and sometimes dark, but with marvellous flashes of humour, and a particular emphasis on careful detail and discipline," said Tim Robertson, Chief Executive of the Koestler Trust. "They are giving those of us outside prison an unprecedented insight into custody, creativity and gender."

Walking through the exhibition there is a real sense of demons being exorcised and souls being laid bare. The artists reflect on their crimes, victims and loss of liberty in their own personal ways.

The art is sometimes dark, brooding and expressive of disillusionment. "I took my anger out on the painting," one anonymous artist explained, while other pieces express something more optimistic and aspirational.

a painting of a man pointing to his back teeth

(Above) Michael, Self-portrait with toothache, HMP Grendon, The Monument Trust Fine Art Award. Koestler Awards

One curator admitted: "I was a bit confused and surprised that all these works are actually done by offenders. I started to think differently and became very proud of being part of this whole process. It has given me back my confidence."

Undoubtedly, the exhibition stimulates conversation. It is difficult to passively walk through it. The ingenuity behind nurturing criminal offenders to become artists may be questioned by some, but as artist Maggi Hambling comments: "You can paint a murder rather than live with the problem of committing one. And artists in their work don't borrow, they steal. And a painting often suffers a lot of abuse on the way to resolution. So artists and criminals have a lot in common."

The founder of the Koestler Awards, Arthur Koestler adds another interesting dimension to the exhibition. A respected philosopher and author of the mid 20th century, Koestler is renowned for his classic novel Darkness At Noon.

His own experiences of imprisonment, as a political detainee on three occasions, gave him unprecedented insights into the relationship between custody and creativity. But sexual affairs and rape allegations have made him a controversial character; something the Koestler Trust fully acknowledges.

a model of an art deco tea set

(Above) Art Deco Tea Set, Anon, HM Prison Wayland, Norfolk, Royal London Society Bronze Award for Pottery. Koestler Awards

"Koestler made some mistakes in his personal life, but this only makes him a more appropriate figurehead for our work as a charity–which is all about helping people who have made grave mistakes in life to find positive new directions," says Tim Robertson, explaining the Trust's philosophy.

Many of the works are for sale at modest prices, with half the proceeds going to the artist. The sales provide financial support for the Koestler Trust, and 10% goes to Victim Support, the national charity for people affected by crime.

The exhibition is multi-faceted, with political and moral issues for the visitor to think about. It is testament to the wealth of untapped talent and potential in the UK's prison population, just waiting to be unlocked.

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