Arts Lab Experimental visual arts for social change

Forgotten. Not Forgotten

From the swathes of displaced communities in Belarus, Ethiopia and the Middle East to victims of global warming and heightened political turmoil induced by the pandemic, numbers of human rights omissions worldwide are soaring. As we go about our daily lives trying to make sense of it all whilst dealing with our own challenges, it’s easy to forget the enormity of crises elsewhere.

Thinking about others in (even) worse off situations than ours, can put some of our worries into perspective. Think of prisoners, for example. Covid has hit hard a system already on its knees. With large numbers of prison staff off sick and infection prevention at max, prisoners in most UK prisons are locked up 23-24 hours a day. It’s hard to imagine the nightmare. How could you stay well and sane locked up, locked in, locked away from any other single person for that long?

Once a week, I meet a senior prison officer in the local Tescos car park to exchange bin bags of 20 large brown envelopes full of artwork. Envelopes that go back to the prison are stuffed full of creative activities for the week, plus a poster of the previous week’s achievements ‘adapted’ by myself. Envelopes that come back with me are left to ‘quarantine’ in the car for 48 hours, before being unpacked. Then the fun starts. In the studio, I play with and create 20 collages out of the contents of each envelope. The finished, collaboratively-created results are then photographed, printed into posters and sent back the following week to each inmate to pin up in his cell. This process will continue for 24 weeks. We are now in week 6.

Prisoners Sharing the Light is a 6 month Arts Lab project supported by the Covid-response National Lottery Community Development Fund. With added financial  support from HMP Dartmoor, we have been able to provide individual art packs, including weekly activities, to 20 male inmates at the prison. The materials and equipment are of the highest quality and the tasks less instructional, more facilitating individual creative expression and experimentation with a local abstract artist.

This is the one thing we do that allows the prisoners in lockdown to express themselves freely, that isn’t ticking boxes in exercise books. It helps them to offload anxieties. There’s no question that it’s helping to reduce incidents of self-harm and suicide inside the prison, creating an overall sense of calm and positivity in the prison environment.’ Head of Learning Skills & Employment HMP Dartmoor.

Judging from the calibre of several of the participants’ output so far, they wouldn’t look out of place on any Fine Art degree course. Watching their work unfold over the weeks has been a privilege – raw and honest with an edge of hope.

How they keep it together locked up in isolation 24/7, let alone put paint to paper, beats me! Lessons in resilience, hope and perspective for all of us. You are not forgotten.

Keep an eye open for some of this stunning work on show in our Gallery and available to purchase on our online Shop in the New Year.