Ai Weiwei curates FREEDOM an art exhibition created by prisoners. - FAD Magazine

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Ai Weiwei curates FREEDOM an art exhibition created by prisoners.

Portrait Ai Weiwei Ai Weiwei Studio

Koestler Arts has announced that their fifteenth Annual UK Exhibition in partnership with the Southbank Centre this October will be curated by Chinese contemporary artist, documentarian, and activist, Ai Weiwei. 2022 marks the 60th anniversary of the Koestler Awards and Ai Weiwei wants this landmark exhibition to be ‘the most ambitious yet’.

The vision for the exhibition is inspired by the artist’s visit to the Koestler Arts building, which currently holds over 6,500 artworks entered into this year’s Awards. Taken aback by the quantity of artworks and the range of categories on display, Ai Weiwei’s concept evolved; to be as inclusive as possible and to let the artwork show how humanity responds when put in extreme circumstances.

This year, the exhibition space at the Southbank Centre will be transformed physically to realise this vision, which will help to preserve the environment within which the artworks are made. The aim is to not ‘translate’ the work but to retain the wholeness of it. Ai Weiwei explained this idea with an analogy: he wants to present the forest, not just a branch that comes from it.

During his curation period, the artist also visited HM Prison Wormwood Scrubs, which is situated next to the Koestler Arts Centre. Having visited many prisons around the world, as well as experiencing his own restriction of freedom during a period of secret detention and constant surveillance in China, this additional visit to HMP Wormwood Scrubs helped to strengthen and confirm the vision for the exhibition.

Despite the severe knock-on effects that Covid has had on prisons, which are only now beginning to return to ‘normal’, nearly 3,000 artists have worked to create artwork for this year’s Koestler Awards. These figures reinforce the motivation behind this year’s exhibition.

Mirroring Koestler Arts’ philosophy, Ai Weiwei wrote,

expressing oneself is a part of being human. To be deprived of a voice is to be told you are not a participant in society; ultimately it is a denial of humanity

The exhibition will showcase artwork created by and submitted to the 2022 Koestler Awards by individuals in prisons, secure mental health facilities, immigration removal centres, young offender institutions and on community sentences across the UK. The exhibition will be presented to the public by ex-prisoner exhibition hosts who have received specialist training to lead tours, answer questions and share their first-hand experience of the importance of art and creativity for those within the criminal justice system.

This exhibition focuses on the role that the act of thinking and creating plays in life under constraints. Notable works of art and literature in history were created when the artist was restricted, oppressed, and challenged, rather than being completely free. The language and feelings that emerged from these conditions are much more profound, convincing, and powerful.

I visited different prisons in the UK and saw the living conditions of different kinds of prisoners. I hope that this exhibition can inspire people to reflect upon the loss of freedom and those that continue to create art to fight for space in life and freedom of expression despite adversity.

Ai Weiwei


Koestler Arts could not be more thrilled to welcome Ai Weiwei as the curator for our 60th Anniversary exhibition. Our entrants have often asked whether he could curate for us, and Ai Weiwei’s vision for the exhibition could not be a more appropriate way to celebrate our artists and our work this year. ‘Freedom’ will be a very different and powerful Koestler Arts exhibition.

Sally Taylor, Chief Executive of Koestler Arts

FREEDOM 27th October – 18th December 2022 Southbank Centre Exhibition Space, Level 1, Royal Festival Hall koestlerarts.org.uk

About the artist

Ai Weiwei is renowned for making strong aesthetic statements that resonate with timely phenomena across today’s geopolitical world. From architecture to installations, social media to documentaries, Ai uses a wide range of mediums as expressions of new ways for his audiences to examine society and its values. Recent exhibitions include: Ai Weiwei: Resetting Memories at MARCO in Monterrey, Ai Weiwei: Bare Life at the Mildred Lane Kemper Museum in St. Louis, Ai Weiwei at the K20/K21 in Dusseldorf, and Good Fences Make Good Neighbors with the Public Art Fund in New York City.

Ai was born in Beijing in 1957 and currently resides and works in Berlin. Ai is the recipient of the 2015 Ambassador of Conscience Award from Amnesty International and the 2012 Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent from the Human Rights Foundation.

About Koestler Arts

Koestler Arts (formerly Koestler Trust) is the UK’s best-known prison arts charity. Koestler Arts encourages people within the criminal justice system to express themselves creatively, and learn new skills, by entering work into the annual Koestler Awards. The Koestler Awards are simple and powerful. They motivate over 2,500 people each year across the whole of the UK’s criminal justice system to participate in the arts, and to show the public their talent and contribution to society.

Each year Koestler Arts receives more than 6,000 entries, in 52 creative categories. Entrants receive feedback and certificates, can be selected for public exhibitions or mentoring, and may sell their visual artwork. Koestler Arts holds a programme of exhibitions and events each year around the UK. The biggest is the annual exhibition at London’s Southbank Centre, which c.20,000 people visit.

Past curators have included Antony Gormley, Benjamin Zephaniah, Speech Debelle, Camille Walala, Sarah Lucas, Grayson Perry, the families of prisoners, victims of crime, serving female prisoners and graduates of the Koestler Arts mentoring programme.

www.koestlerarts.org.uk | @koestlerarts



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