Building community links through prison art

21 October 2011

A collaboration between two community organisations combines the art of mental health service users alongside that of prisoner artists in an exhibition called "Arts Access Turning Point", on in Whangarei until 11 November.

Fred Tito leads the powhiri and blessing of the exhibitionHosted by the Porcine Gallery in Whangarei and blessed by Kaumatua Fred Tito and whānau of Te Parawhau hapu o Ngā Puhi, the exhibition’s primary relationship was between Whau Valley Whaiora Support Trust and the Northland Region Corrections Facility at Ngawha. Mark Lynds, Manager, Contracts and Services, says the intention of the Department is to build a relationship in Whangarei. 

“We want to establish a community partnership with a gallery that is closer to NRCF than Auckland. It’s a Northland thing,” he says. “Rather than artists here only sending work down to the annual exhibition at the Mairangi Bay Arts Centre, there will be a local outlet to place work in.”

Mutual support

Besides, the Department of Corrections is looking to expand on what they know works. “Being involved with a community arts group will be of mutual support for both of us.”

The exhibition features paintings, ceramics, mosaics, large carved and painted works on MDF board, a range of bone carvings, and a large work carved from swamp kauri dating back 45,000 years.

Trish Madison, Manager of Whau Valley Whaiora Support Trust, says one of the main benefits of the collaboration is that the wider community is able to view the work and skills of prisoners.

“I imagine the benefits for prisoners are similar to what we see with our clients in the mental health sector,” she says. “There’s an increase in self-esteem, confidence, pride and self-respect.  At the same time, making art for an exhibition gives focus and an outcome.

“Exhibitions like these help families and communities see the prisoners as artists and individuals first. They also help bring about greater empathy and opportunities for prisoners when they’re released.”

A positive light

But more importantly, she says, it helps prisoners think of themselves in a more positive light and see opportunities beyond their backgrounds and current circumstances.

An artwork by a prisoner artist on displayIn the first week of the exhibition, more than 150 people viewed the exhibition, including mental health professionals who called in to view the work of their clients. For Porcine Gallery manager and bookseller, Evon Morgan, a new door has opened for the gallery through this exhibition.

“Prisoners can’t be doing art like this without some change going on in their internal dialogue about their lives,” she says. “It’s wonderful to see the positive outcomes for these prisoners. These stories should be publicised and encouraged as much as possible.”

Evon believes the partnership will help prisoners see that their time, work and effort have value. Exhibitions of this nature create diversity and encourage greater community interest in the organisations involved.

Greater access to different groups

“I think the style of this exhibition gives greater accessibility to different visiting groups,” she says. “The gallery environment is non-threatening, and it presents artists as thinking and contributing members of society.

“I’m interested in providing a place for people who don’t have access to fine art venues. Our focus is being able to support a community to grow.”

For Evon, the carvings are a highlight of the prison art on display. “It’s not something l’d usually exhibit. We do Matariki in June of each year and there are Māori groups who work on that. But in a general context, I don’t have a link with indigenous art and so for me it’s exciting to have the work here.”


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