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  • Writer's pictureSarah Moncrieff

Outlets for expression

Updated: Mar 30, 2018

Another moving episode from the Radio 4 series, “The Art of Now, Guantanamo”.

The programme focused on the lives of inmates at Guantanamo Bay and the artwork they have produced. Most of them have, or are serving, long periods of detention without having been charged, and with little prospect of that happening any time soon. Some have been subject to torture methods. Despite this, they have had access to making their own art, which has allowed them to both “hold on to something beautiful” (as put by the attorney for inmate Ammar al Baluchi) and provide them with an outlet for expression of their experiences of torture.

The drive and desire to be creative is an ancient human trait. To enable people who are detained, for whatever reason, the chance to practise this ancient means of expression gives them the opportunity to step out of their current situation and enter a different mental state.

I believe when we are immersed in creative activity it subsumes all else, even if just temporarily, and allows the means to escape emotional difficulties or just the hardship of one’s existence.

I saw this first hand in my work delivering art workshops at Empire des Enfants, a home for street children in Dakar, Senegal. What I witnessed was that by allowing the children time to immerse themselves in a creative project they could forget for a while the hardships they had faced on the street and be part of a team producing an art work and experiencing the fun and joy of seeing that piece come to life.

Likewise, by allowing creative practice in prisons and mental health hospitals (where patients are detained) means that prisoners and patients can embark on projects which not only allow for self-expression but also, and most importantly, allow engagement with each other in a way that is supportive and encouraging. There aren’t enough opportunities for that in everyday life let alone when you are taken out of normal life circumstances.

A person’s work will develop under the enthusiasm and encouragement of their peers. This should be a natural part of life and can be transforming, but sadly isn’t, and so for many people experiencing this encouragement from others is often a first.

I saw the Koestler exhibition in 2017 at the Barbican, an amazing exhibition of work by prisoners in UK prisons, an example of which is above. Sadness and regret oozed from every piece, but the fact that their work is on display serves as a reminder for us to “look at how human the makers are”. I was really impressed with this incredible drawing from that exhibition and I show it along with my painting of Broadmoor Hospital, a piece I did to remind us that these institutions exist and within them people live, suffer, create and survive.

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Mar 30, 2018

The Guantanamo (The Art of Now) programme was hard to listen to without grave feelings of disquiet at what our “civilised” world condones. But the experiences of those who retained their positivity through painting over many years of incarceration was well worth the listening angst. The individual accounts were a triumph of the human mind over inhumanity.

And even without being physically or mentally tortured, I can relate to the feeling you describe of other-worldly transportation that painting promotes. The focussed effort required for protracted periods of painting can, I agree with you, allow the conscious mind to float freely in a dream-like state and that, for me, is part of the pleasure of the art.

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