What Freedom Looks Like for Incarcerated Artists


LONDON — Sixty years ago, the Hungarian-born writer, philosopher, and political activist Arthur Koestler set up a charity to encourage people in the criminal justice system to create art. During the Spanish Civil War, Koestler had been captured as a political prisoner by Franco’s fascist regime and sentenced to death. He was released through a last-minute intervention by the British government and thereafter campaigned to abolish capital punishment in the United Kingdom, publishing searing indictments of the practice, such as Reflections on Hanging.

Capital punishment was abolished in the UK in 1965, but Koestler Arts continues to work with incarcerated people and patients in secure mental health units, aiming to improve their lives through creativity. Every year since 2013 the charity has organized the Koestler Awards for art, writing, music, and design and an Annual Exhibition showcasing the entries, curated by well-known cultural figures. Past curators include artists Antony Gormley and Grayson Perry, poet Benjamin Zephaniah, and jazz musician Soweto Kinch. 

This year’s curator, Ai Weiwei, is a particularly good fit. In 2011, the activist-artist was detained by the Chinese government on charges of tax evasion and incarcerated for 81 days. Much of his work draws on this experience: At the 2013 Venice Biennale, for example, he showed a series of dioramas recreating his prison cell. In the Koestler Arts show, titled Freedom, the artist has again engaged with the architecture of penal confinement. The exhibition design includes 15 “cells,” based on the size of those in a typical British prison, which act as the backdrop to the artworks.   

The ingenious design not only forces the visitor to contemplate the experience of inhabiting a small prison cell, but also provides extra wall space that allows the exhibition to be as inclusive as possible. Out of the 6,000 works entered into the Koestler Awards, Ai has selected 1,858, all of which are closely hung on the makeshift walls. This impressive scope makes for a fascinating survey of art by those deprived of their physical freedom, as well as a snapshot of our historical moment, with references to current affairs such as the Russia-Ukraine war and Queen Elizabeth II’s recent death. 

“Sichuan’s Weight”

The identities of the artists are anonymous — only their prisons are listed in the exhibition guide. This is intended to protect them from being identified as offenders to relatives, employers, or the press, and to avoid sensitivities relating to victims of a crime — all of which makes sense. It’s hard to escape the feeling, though, that the artworks have been slightly flattened by this anonymization. This is mitigated, however, by the presence of a group of visitor assistants who are themselves formerly incarcerated and are able to share their personal insights about the artworks and the context in which they were created. 

This year’s theme, Taste, has produced some inventive and witty works about food and drink. Several pieces recreate full English breakfasts, complete with streaky bacon and black pudding, in surprising mediums including ceramics, colored paper meticulously coiled and assembled on canvas, and acrylic painted directly onto a disposable plate. A particularly striking piece is the “H.M.P. Bad Boys Burger,” in which every layer of the heavily stacked burger contains words relating to the experience of incarceration, from care and courage to self-loathing and abuse. Another standout is a re-imagining of Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup can as a mangled but strangely beautiful tin of baked beans with gloopy sauce spilling out. 

Among the various nods to art history is the painting “Pop Art Tribute,” a Roy Lichtenstein-esque close-up of red lipstick being applied to a pair of full lips. There are also several takes on Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring,” as well as portraits of Tracey Emin, Picasso, and Ai Weiwei himself. A wonderful portrait of Queen Elizabeth II as a young woman is made from matchsticks and dyed rice. Its title — “None of Us Has a Monopoly on Wisdom”is taken from a speech made by the late Queen, who died in September of this year

“Almost Perfect”

Other works in the exhibition reference recent political events, such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In one piece, named “No More War,” a soldier cradles a young woman; the background is a Union Jack, half of which is painted in the Ukrainian national colors of blue and yellow. The same colors adorn a ceramic work, titled “Together as One,” along with the slogans “we stand together, we play together, we fight together” and “no room for racism.” Alongside these visions of solidarity and community are reflections on the trauma of family separation. In the heartbreaking painting “The Modern Dad and Child,” a mother and child stand on the steps of a courthouse next to a stern-looking judge and policewoman. In the foreground is an outstretched hand, as the dad beyond the frame reaches for his child’s hand. 

While seeing these works on such a scale is compelling, some of them are impaired by poor curation. Many of the walls are organized thematically: For instance, one features colorful landscapes, another celebrity portraits. But in other spaces the choices seem erratic. The entrance room, for example, includes a random selection of works including a large sculpted bust of a head with gold sunglasses, a graphic illustration of a tennis player, an assemblage depicting a bleeding eye, and a collage of a flower made from painted bottle caps. Hanging high on the wall is a textile piece depicting a lively seabed — so high in fact that you can’t read the text on it. This does the works a slight disservice, but not enough to ruin what is an accomplished, varied, original, and emotionally charged exhibition. 

Installation view of “cells” displaying art in the Koestler Arts exhibition Freedom at Southbank Centre, London, curated by Ai Weiwei
“Tin of Beans”
“H.M.P. Bad Boys Burger”

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“The Modern Dad and Child”

Freedom continues at the Southbank Centre (Belvedere Road, London, England) through December 18. The exhibition was curated by Ai Weiwei.  

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