ART BY OFFENDERS
Royal Festival Hall
Royal Festival Hall
This raw and disturbing painting was not automatically accepted for display. It's one of perhaps a couple of hundred artworks - paintings, sculpture, music, textiles, drawings. craft, written word, calligraphy, drama, photography – all created by prisoners, offenders on community sentences, immigration detainees and secure psychiatric patients across the UK.
The selection was made on behalf of the Koestler Trust, founded 49 years ago by Arthur Koestler, himself three times a political prisoner. Every artist gets a participation certificate and about a third receive an award ranging from £20 to £100. This painting won for Terry Nokes, from HM Prison Downview in Surrey, the Angela Findlay and Ruth Taylor Highly Recommended Award for Innovative Female Painter in Oil or Acrylic. The artist keeps half of the proceeds if the work is sold, the remainder going to Victim Support and the Trust itself.
The doubt about showing it centred on ‘sending the wrong message to the public’. But in a capacious exhibition of this size there is space for everyone. Anthony Joyce’s A Light at the End of the Tunnel’ won the Sir Stephen and Winifred Tumin Bronze Award and is a beautifully painted long view of a prison interior illuminated by a magnificent window. An anonymous prisoner from Wandsworth won the Kenneth Harper Highly Commended Award for Textile Art with Cupid’s Garden, an exquisite circular quilted and embroidered piece full of affection and delight. What is striking is that the materials used do not come from an expensive kit bought in a store and pre-planned by experts. The artist has used what is available, achieving an individual and authentic symmetry and colour field. It reminds me of equally lovely work I’ve seen at the American Museum at Bath.
But back to the nightmare scene above. What is at once disconcerting is the way the eye moves around looking for some respite from the pain which bleeds from this picture. Scarlet everywhere, not just slapped on the frightening walls but seeping down to spread across the floor. Where will it go next? It splashes all over the place, even lands on the dog’s testicles. The green-eyed dog stares out of the picture, expecting nothing from the human. It looks as if it’s bred to scare but is simply sad. Such a large, lardy lump with spindly legs threatens no one. And what on earth can we see in the oven? On the stove something is boiling over – a hand sticks out and there’s a glimpse of an animal’s head with green eyes. I think of witches’ brews, of terrible legends where children are cooked and unknowingly eaten by their loved ones. Even the tiled floor seems to slope downwards, as if to tip the nightmare out onto our laps...
I’ve scanned in another (even poorer) image which shows the rest of the canvas. Through the open door on the left yellow curtains are billowing and below them a couple of puppets,their strings visible but not the hands which manipulate them. A man and a woman, each frozen in an awkward, painful pose. Is this a hint of domestic violence? Most disturbing of all is the black shadow behind the figure. What disfigurement caused those two holes?