Monday 23 January 2017

Inside Art

Prison may not seem to be a place that can inspire artistic endeavours but two recent exhibitions proved that this can be the case. The exhibitions took place on either side of the Atlantic and ran almost consecutively (by chance rather than design).

The first exhibition was called “Inside: Artists and Writers in Reading Prison” and ran in September and October last year. Reading prison, or Reading Gaol as it is more widely known, has an almost hallowed place in British lgbt history. It was the place to which Oscar Wilde was sentenced for gross indecency in 1895. The incarceration inspired Oscar to write “De Profundis” and, after his release, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”, thereby giving the prison an immortality it would never have acquired.

It is this connection with Oscar Wilde that inspired the “Inside” exhibition. The prison was scheduled for sale by the Ministry of Justice when the organisation Artangel stepped in with the idea of the exhibition. The Victorian building closed in 2013 as being unsuitable for 21st century requirements.
Reading Prison (photo credit University of Reading)
Artangel is an organisation which produces exhibitions in unexpected locations. A Victorian prison, although by no means for the first time, was a perfect venue. Many artists and writers, a lot of them from the lgbt community, contributed works to “Inside”. The main themes being that of incarceration, isolation and separation. Prison cells and corridors housed the works over the three floors of the prison. In addition there were public readings of Wilde’s “De Profundis” by notable actors (including Ben Whishaw and Ralph Fiennes).

Reunited, so to speak, was Oscar Wilde’s cell and its cell door. The door has been part of the collection of the National Law Museum in Nottingham at the Galleries of Justice (more of which next month).

A similar art exhibition ran in November and December 2016. This had the similar title of “On the Inside” but whereas the art at Reading Gaol was produced by artists outside the prison system “On the Inside” consisted of art produced by prisoners in US jails and exhibited in an art gallery.

The idea behind the American exhibition came from Tatiana von Furstenberg. Having come across an American organisation called Black and Pink, run and staffed by lgbt former prisoners which support those still in prison. Tatiana was impressed by the high standard of artwork in the Black and Pink monthly newsletter. All the artwork is produced by lgbt prisoners and ex-prisoners. Tatiana was inspired to contact the organisation with the idea of the “On the Inside” exhibition.

As the press release for the exhibition pointed out prisoners only have restricted access to basic materials, so the fact that they can produce high quality work reveals the amount of talent there is behind those cell doors. It you wish to see for yourself just how good these works are you can go to the exhibition website here.

Working with Black and Pink Tatiana von Furstenburg invited readers of their monthly newsletter to submit work for the exhibition. More than 4,000 pieces were submitted.
Exhibition poster for "On the Inside" based on artwork by Larry S.
“On the Inside” was mounted at the Abrons Art Center in Manhattan and included a discussion panel with Tatiana, members of Black and Pink and some former prisoners.

What both exhibitions highlighted is the extra isolation and difficulties faced by lgbt prisoners. It also showed that, whatever their crime, whatever their reason for being incarcerated, there is something in their lives that can produce pleasure through their art. It is to be hoped that those who return to the outside world can harness their artistic talents for the benefit of all.

No comments:

Post a Comment