Create under Restraint

Back in July, in what was the hottest week of the year, I curated a pop-up exhibition of works created by men in prison. The work that had been displayed was created by Safe Ground‘s Alumni members, all of whom completed programmes run by the charity, inside and outside of the prison estate. The Alumni members are based up and down the country and as a way of continuing their engagement with Safe Ground they regularly send their pieces of art to the charity. For this pop-up exhibition, I had also collaborated with HMP Warren Hill on their ‘Expression’ project curated by artist-in-residence, Julian Earwalker.

The works comprised of photography, spoken word, film, and poetry. The photographs captured men who participated in the first ever Family Man course at HMP Wandsworth as well as behind the scene images of Safe Ground’s Transitions project. The images were captured by Warwick Sweeny and Jonathan Perugia. The photographs challenged the preconceptions of how a prison looks, i.e being very gray, depressing and oppressive.

There are very different ways in which people access arts and culture and it is apparent that participation takes place in an unequal yet diverse society. People’s engagement with arts and culture can take place in different settings and through different models of provision. Often it is said within a prison environment, that frustration can lead to creativity. Safe Ground often states it is important to have spaces to share people’s stories and creative processes that have arisen under constraint settings. Involvement in the arts is sometimes presented as an easy option. However, as the Arts Alliance stated, anyone who has wrestled with finding the right word for a poem, committed five more minutes to practicing a new chord sequence on the guitar or been part of a cast rehearsing for a play or a dance performance will confirm that the artistic process is often a challenging one, and one that requires dedication, patience and the learning of new skills.

Much of the work that was on display explored themes of conflict, home, family, journeys, and celebrations. Poetry is one of the most popular forms of creativity within the prison estate and naturally featured heavily within the exhibition. The main feature of the exhibition was an installation of 50 poems suspended in the air. Before entering the exhibition space, visitors were given a ‘visitor number’. This unique number matched to a number on each of poems, thus inviting the visitor to interact with the installation and take a piece of the exhibition away with them.

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