Koestler Arts presents their 15th Annual UK Exhibition in partnership with the Southbank Centre, 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 volume of artworks on display in Freedom at the Southbank Centre is an immense celebration of artwork coming out of criminal justice settings. Ai Weiwei’s design comprises of fifteen cell spaces that are based on the size of a typical cell in a UK prison, which roughly measures 1.8m by 3m. Each cell contains a multitude of work, with the smallest containing 78 and the largest containing 131. Alongside paintings and drawings, visitors will see artworks from a variety of artforms including calligraphy, graphic design, hairstyling and needlecraft. Visitors might also notice unusual materials in place of traditional ones; prison bedsheets used as canvases, Marmite used to create a portrait or sand used to create a landscape. Artwork will be purposefully left unframed to further respect the original environment within which it was made. There will be moments during the day when quotes from displayed artists will be played out loud in several cells. These quotes are read by individuals currently involved in Koestler Arts’ Mentorship Scheme where artists who are now in the community are paired with a mentor to help develop their practice. These intermittent recordings aim to reflect the sounds of unplanned comings and goings that enter prison cells unexpectedly – through the pipes of a shared plumbing system, through the bars on the window or through the slat in the door. Unplanned sounds that consequentially link the people inside the cell with life and activity outside it.
The design of the space also creates a natural flow of direction. Once through the corridor of cells, visitors will have a chance to listen to music and watch animation and films before entering the final section of the exhibition. This is a room filled with sculptures; from a child-sized Pinocchio made from matchsticks, to a delicate dragonfly made from bread. In addition, the walls will be covered in poems and writing that continues to support the immersive environment Ai Weiwei’s design encourages. Poignant, humorous and escapist, the mixture of topics and styles further showcases in a different artistic form how humanity responds when put in extreme circumstances.
A group of ex-prisoner exhibition Hosts, employed by Koestler Arts, have been specially recruited and trained to help visitors navigate the space. Additionally, the Hosts will lead free exhibition tours throughout the week to give further insight into the artwork through their own lived experience. Times and details about Host tours are available on the Koestler Arts website.
Over half the artworks on display are for sale and will be available to purchase through the website from 27th October. There will also be a Pop-Up Shop in the exhibition space at the Southbank Centre where items such as postcards of artworks on display and three Koestler’s anthologies New Poetry from Prisons, will be available to buy.
FREEDOM, curated by Ai Weiwei 27th October – 18th December 2022, Southbank Centre, Exhibition Space, Level 1, Royal Festival Hall koestlerarts.org.uk
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.