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I’m Still Here… Art by ex-offenders, secure patients and detainees

The leading UK art charity for detainees has its new show on the South Bank

20 September, 2018 — By John Evans

Above left: AAAAArgh!!, mixed media on board, Bolton Probation Office, Phillip King Bronze Award for Sculpture. Right: Waterlow Park, Camden and Islington Probation Service Bronze Award for Drawing. Images courtesy of the Koestler Trust

In 2017 the job fell to Sir Antony Gormley RA, but in 2018 the role of curating the annual Koestler Trust exhibition, back at the Southbank Centre for the 11th year, has been taken up by family members of the artists.

Entitled I’m Still Here, the free exhibition of art is by ex-offenders, secure patients and detainees, and draws on the 7,000 plus entries for the 2018 Koestler Awards.

Set up in 1962, the trust, which uses “the power of the arts to help individuals learn the skills and gain the confidence to live creative, positive and productive lives,” and has been running artists’ family days for a decade, approached family members to take the lead for this show. It features a diverse range of art, writing and music and the charity notes: “Reflecting the make-up of prisoner visiting rooms across the UK, the curators are overwhelmingly female. They include a close friend, three mothers, a wife, sisters, nieces and a nephew…”

Each of nine family curators was asked to select an object as an inspiration for their choice of 40 or so individual pieces, with an overall theme of “connections”. The results are impressive, poignant, and varied.

One curator, Becky, said she went straight to a sculpture of two hands touching. Titled Coalesce, it’s a collaboration of a couple, arrested together but separated, who made the hands in different prisons. Becky says greetings cards she has received from her husband have been very important over the years, and added that touching hands had featured a lot in prison visits. She says: “High security prisons are very strict on the amount of physical contact you can have, of course, but that’s the one you’re allowed.”


Leave-Off, Prisoners Abroad, Woodcraft. Image courtesy of the Koestler Trust

Another of her choices is a simple wood plaque with a small oak leaf carving, titled Leave-Off, of which she writes: “I really love the simplicity of this. Nature is important to my husband.”

For fellow curator, Barbara, it’s the phone, she says, that’s “my absolute contact with my son”. So one of her choices features a phone in a watercolour, ink and pencil work titled Waterlow Park, which won the Camden and Islington Probation Service Bronze Award for Drawing, one of the many Koestler awards sponsored by individuals and organisations.

The artist wrote: “This artwork demonstrates the contrast between the freedom of those on the outside being able to talk on the phone anywhere at any time and the restrictions that the prisoner must deal with, only being able to use a landline phone at specific times, and often for short periods as calling mobiles is expensive.”

As with all the unique works in this show, there is a back story and explanation to each one, whether immediately obvious or not. There’s a Laurel and Hardy sculpture; a fish and chips on a plate, with salt and vinegar, ceramic; detailed drawings of loved ones; and even a mixed media piece Another Bridge in the Wall, featuring a delicate glimpse of a bridge and lily pond straight out of Claude Monet’s Giverny, but with the scene framed in brick.

Many works are for sale, and I’m Still Here, which saw both the Lord Chancellor and justice secretary David Gauke and culture secretary Jeremy Wright at the opening ceremony, runs until November 4.

For more details on hours, events, pop-up shop, sponsorship, donations and how to get involved with the trust see www.koestlertrust.org.uk

• I’m Still Here is at the Southbank Centre, Royal Festival Hall, 10am-11pm daily (some day closures), free admission, www.koestlertrust.org.uk/exhibitions/im-still-here/

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