“Unlock the talent inside” is the rallying cry on a poster promoting the 2022 Koestler Awards, organised every year by UK prison arts charity Koestler Arts. Celebrating its 60th anniversary, the resulting exhibition will be curated by multimedia artist Ai Weiwei.
The Koestler Awards started in 1962 and each year, more than 3500 people in the UK criminal justice system take part. The awards provide feedback and encouragement to entrants in the visual art, design, writing and music categories. They culminate in a curated exhibition at the Southbank Centre in London.
Last year’s exhibition, The I and the We, presented 200 artworks selected from more than 6400 entries. Held at the Southbank Centre from late October to early December, the exhibition included performances of written work; exhibition tours hosted by former prisoners; a playlist of music; an online gallery; three short films; and a pop-up shop.
The Koestler Arts website says that its exhibitions and displays share the stories behind the artworks, providing a voice for people who are often closed off from society. It also offers an arts mentoring scheme and exhibition host employment programme.
- “It has given me a second chance. As a result of working for Koestler I was able to get a job and have hope for the future,” Andrew said.
- “Working at Koestler was amazing. To be invited back was truly humbling. To hand out awards where I was once an awardee was elating,” John said.
Under the heading The impact of arts in prisons, its website says: “Evidence suggests that engaging in the arts can improve wellbeing, family connections, motivation and resilience, and provide opportunities for self-reflection and education.”
Nothing like Koestler Arts in New Zealand
Here in New Zealand, there is nothing like Koestler Arts, says Chris Ulutupu, Arts in Corrections Advisor at Arts Access Aotearoa.
“The new exhibition space in Corrections’ national office in Wellington is the only space designed specifically for exhibitions of prison art,” he says.
“That’s why we foster community relationships so that local museums and galleries will feature art by men and women in our prisons.
“There are numerous benefits of these local exhibitions for both the community and the artist. It creates an understanding and appreciation among the public and also benefits the artists hugely in terms of confidence, pride, connection and hope.”
Chris points to two community exhibitions that were particularly effective:
- From the Inside – Mai i Roto, an exhibition of work by men in Tongariro Prison, presented at the Taupō Museum in 2019
- Huakina, an exhibition featuring art by prisoner and guest artists, curated by The Learning Connexion School of Creativity and Art in conjunction with Expressions Whirinaki in Upper Hutt in 2019.
Sharon Hall has been managing the prison art and creativity programme at The Learning Connexion for the past 17 years. There are approximately 120 students across the prisons studying towards an art and creativity certificate or diploma. Some students also continue their studies after they’re released from prison.
New gallery to feature prisoner art
Sharon says the Taita distance-learning tertiary institution has recently opened a large, new gallery space on its ground floor. Part of the gallery will feature prisoner art on a regular basis.
“The Learning Connexion is really putting itself out there this year to profile art by men and women in prison. Having a dedicated new gallery means we can be more flexible and responsive.”
And instead of end-of-term exhibitions, the new gallery will have regular exhibitions. This will open up more opportunities for prisoner students to showcase their work in a curated exhibition.
In late April, work by students undertaking Level 5 of the Diploma of Creativity will be displayed in the gallery and then in June, there will be a Matariki show.
Exhibition space in Corrections' national office
In October 2020, Sharon was contracted by Ara Poutama Aotearoa to set up an exhibition space in the reception area of Corrections national office in Wellington. The first exhibition opened in August 2021 and celebrated Matariki. It included 20 works on the theme of Matariki and what it meant to the artists.
A new exhibition called Mahi Raranga o Ngā Tāne Whanganui opened in the space in April 2022. It features 20 works by men in Whanganui Prison who attend weaving workshops by tutor Juanita Davis.
Sharon, who selected the work and curated the exhibition, says the aim of the display is to illustrate the process that Juanita uses to teach the men – from making putiputi through to pōtae, kete and, finally, kākahu.