- South Hill Park Arts Centre, Bracknell
This exhibition arranged by the Koestler explores the theme of food from the perspective of women in prison or secure services.
The Koestler is an organisation set up by Arthur Koestler, a prominent journalist and later novelist, in 1962, which aims to inspire creativity among those in prison and secure services. They hold an annual competition spanning across all art forms, both visual or auditory and written. The Koestler also provide a mentoring scheme for artistically inclined individuals leaving prison or secure services. The impetus for starting the organisation came from Arthur Koestler’s experience in a Spanish prison after he was arrested when covering the Spanish Civil War. He found that expressing his creativity through writing allowed him to withstand the experience and he was driven to help others experience the benefits of creativity during the difficult experience of being incarcerated.
I was invited to this exhibition because my own work was included. My own experiences inform my reaction to the exhibition. However, any member of the public may be impressed by the artistry on display and empathise with the issues raised by the work.
This exhibition is notable for being the first exhibition of work purely by women in or formerly in prison or secure services. It is perhaps fitting that the theme of this exhibition is food because there is a special relationship between food and feminity. There are a number of reasons for this; perhaps most obviously, women are traditionally the cooks in the family home. Fruit such as the apple can also be seen as feminine symbols (think of Eve in the garden of Eden for example or the novel ‘Oranges are not the only Fruit’ by Jeanette Winterson). Lastly women often have a far more fraught relationship with food than men, due to societal pressure to be thin and not gain weight from eating rich food, despite the desirability of such food.
Many of the works in the exhibition dealt with universal or highly relatable themes. The desirability and tastiness of sweet food in particular was highlighted, as was the undesirable consequences of such food. Several pieces, particularly the poetry expressed anguish over the idea of gaining weight (for example ‘Healthy Life-Styal?’ (HM Prison & Young Offender Institution Drake Hall) which claims “Our weight will creep up and take us by stealth” and ‘My Favourite Food’ (HM Prison & Young Offender Institution Askham Grange), which although predominantly positive about food contains the line “I enjoyed every meal,/ As it heads to my hips.”), whilst this is a sentiment that sadly most women can relate to, it is not entirely the usual situation that is being presented here. In prison or secure services inmates lack autonomy in what they eat, the food is usually high in carbohydrates as one piece eloquently describes (‘Prison Belly’ (HM Prison & Young Offender Institution East)). The artists perceives this to be fattening and other artists and poets in the exhibition corroborate her view regarding the unhealthiness of prison food.
The exhibition both highlights the universality of both the female and the human experience and provides an enlightening insight into the experience of incarceration. As well as the lack of autonomy as regards to diet the exhibition shows the food related deprivation and nostalgia experienced by incarcerated women. The description of the knitted ‘Cheese on Toast’ (HM Prison Bronzefield) explains that the work stems from the artist’s longing for that humble meal. ‘All I want is a fresh glass of milk’ (HM Prison Downview) is an accomplished pencil drawing that expresses a similar sentiment. ‘Chocolate Dreams’ (HM Prison Downview) eloquently expresses the desire for confectionary that might not be easily accessed in prison, whilst the three dimensional artwork ‘Sunday Dinner at Mum’s’ (HM Prison & Young Offender Institution Cornton Vale) depicts a familiar family scenario that is currently outside the artist’s reach.
‘How to cook in a microwave’ (HM Prison Send) is a simple hand written text image that defiantly proclaims “Prison I can still cook Try it”. This artwork brings home to the viewer the difficulties of cooking a satisfying meal with only the use of a microwave (as is the case in prison).
The food is not the only area in which women in prisons and secure services experience deprivation, the prison artist may not have access to the same range of materials as a practising artist, art student or indeed unconvicted amateur. This circumstance is surely a contributing factor in the wide range of materials seen in this exhibition. As well as the usual suspects many highly unusual media and materials are to be found, most notably a self portrait painted in marmite (‘Marmite’ (Wellesley Hospital)). Another example of a work that uses food itself as a artistic material is ‘Prisoner Jam Tart’ (HM Prison Peterborough), this artwork utilises prison jam portions to poignantly expresses the artist’s longing for a real jam tart.
Paper mâché was also very popular, for example ‘3D Fruitbowl’ (HM Prison Bronzefield), ‘Adam’s Apple’ (HM Prison & Young Offender Institution Cornton Vale) and ‘Memories of Better Days’ (HM Prison & Young Offender Institution Drake Hall). Several works utilized mixed media to commendable effect, for example ‘Pair of Sweet Peppers’ (HM Prison Eastwood Park), a pair of paintings of red and yellow peppers with three dimensional seeds (possibly real) attached. ‘Feeling Peckish’ (HM Prison & Young Offender Institution Styal) was a very striking large work, probably a collaborative project; it features a number of biscuits in different media: one (a bourbon) is painted onto a piece of wood attached to the canvas, another (a custard cream) has the details delineated with string and painted over, a third (a party ring) is painted thickly and the last (what looks like a jammy dodger) is knitted.
Almost every contemporary exhibition worth its salt contains at least one piece that makes a political or social point. Many of the works in the exhibition dealt with the intrinsic issue of the nature of incarceration but one in particular made a point that extends outside the prison wall. The piece in question, called ‘The Wasteful Taste of Consumerism’ (HM Prison Bronzefield), is a dress made from discarded food and drink wrappers, most prominently Tunnock’s caramel wafers (presumably an item of confectionary provided to prisoners). These wrappers are apparently often used for artistic purposes by inmates, but rarely as brazenly as in this work. The accompanying text to the piece explains that it is a commentary on the destructive nature of both fast food and fast fashion. The dress is beautifully designed, with a sewn bodice and a dangling train.
‘The Wasteful Taste of Consumerism’ is both a very technically accomplished work and one with rough edges; some parts of the dress are delicately sewn, whilst others are roughly torn. This epitomizes the nature of the exhibition, which is a contrast between naïve and technically accomplished work; both existing in harmony with each other. You have individuals who have never before attempted to express their creativity and practiced artists, and everything in between. The result is highly stimulating and thought provoking.
All images mentioned in this review can be found at: https://koestlerarts.org.uk/exhibitions/regional-exhibitions/on-my-plate-2023/