Reassessing perceptions of ‘inside’

'Another Me’ is the 2019 UK exhibition of the Koestler Trust’s work produced by people in detention. Reviewed by Rosie Meek.

Each year a guest curator undertakes the momentous task of reviewing thousands of pieces submitted by people in criminal justice settings (youth and adult prisons, secure units, and on probation). This year’s curator is Soweto Kinch, an award-winning British jazz and hip-hop musician, who has risen to this significant challenge, appraising over 7000 pieces in order to form his vision.

Although the art and its form (be it paintings, drawings, sculpture, poetry, film and music) is diverse and multi-layered, the 150 artworks selected by Kinch this year have a collective mission: to invite visitors to reassess their perceptions of people who have spent time ‘inside’. As Soweto reflects in his commentary of the exhibition, ‘the self can transcend the environment that it is in’ and rarely is this more powerful than in the art of the incarcerated. And in creating the exhibition, the curator was clearly drawn to work that would surprise and educate the viewer, and in doing so might suggest layers, or multiple senses of self.

Those of us who work or have had experience of residing in or visiting prisons will be acutely aware of this overarching theme of multiple selves, of things not necessarily being what they seem at first glance, and – to paraphase a newly launched campaign from the Forward Trust (www.forwardtrust.org.uk), tackling stigma towards ex-offenders and people in recovery from addition – of people being more than their past.

In walking through the exhibits (identified by title and the establishment from which they were created and sent) I reflect on Soweto’s observation that ‘Some of the more delicate, less arresting works formed me to reflect more deeply’. As curator he says he found in these pieces ‘a sense of humour, acerbic political wit, a sense of awareness, a sense of social commentary and critiquing their own environments in a way that really surprised and entertained me in equal measures’, and I defy anyone not to be humbled, enthused and educated by this collection.

One of my proudest legacies of my term as Head of Department at my institution concern the three annual prizes that we (the Department of Law and Criminology) sponsor, and this year all three pieces made it to the exhibition: ‘Green Screen Advertisement’ is a funny, dark short film created and acted by first time entrants to the awards from HM Prison & Young Offender Institution Grampian in Scotland; ‘Hiding in the Flowers’ is a beautiful, colourful painting by an artist at HMP Edinburgh; and ‘Change of Scene’ is a striking and clever 3D painting by an 18-year-old entrant from HM Prison & Young Offender Institution Parc in Wales.

The show is also interactive, in that visitors are encouraged to complete anonymous feedback forms that are relayed to the artists. I am told by Koestler staff that this is a really powerful part of the process and that artists gain a lot from this virtual interaction with their audiences.

- Reviewed by Rosie Meek CPsychol who is Professor of Criminology & Psychology at Royal Holloway University of London.
Twitter: @DrRosieMeek

The free exhibition runs until 3 November. Experience a walkthrough of I’m Still Here, the 2018 exhibition, via https://bit.ly/2nOEJ1V

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