Art in prisons is proving a powerful way to build essential life skills, expand forms of communication and establish networks outside of prison that provide pathways to successful rehabilitation. The Northland Region Corrections Facility (NRCF) offers programmes in art, whakairo, performing arts and music. The arts programme delivered by Redemption Arts and Education Services has been educating and cultivating men within the prison to become professional artists in their own right. Some of their work is currently on display in an exhibition called CONTAIN at Village Arts, Kohukohu with all the proceeds from sales feeding back into projects in the local community.
“Prison art can be perceived as a hobby and time-filler. At NRCF, the arts programme is a purposeful, multi-disciplinary and educational undertaking, aimed at supporting the eventual reintegration of the men into their respective communities.”
Beth Hill of Redemption Arts and Education Services is the arts programme leader at NRCF. The programmes they deliver provide men with the opportunity to gain NCEA and National Certificate qualifications through Tekura Pounamu Correspondence School and NorthTec. Encouraged to work as professional artists, the men create bodies of work, keep portfolios and learn how to accurately document their work.
While the formal education is hugely beneficial, the central premise of the art programme is to build life skills and open new forms of communication. “Art opens doors, and helps the men gain confidence and realise their potential,” explains Beth. “Our approach to the arts focuses on creating safe spaces for the men to make art, have pro-social interactions, and express themselves in ways possibly unknown to them before.”
The flow on effects from developing self-reflective practices and exploring self-expression in new creative ways, combined with the skills learned from working collaboratively expand out into all areas of the men’s life and ultimately their rehabilitation. It provides opportunities to re-discover their sense of identity both personally and culturally. While also developing incredibly practical skills around organisation and project management practice.
“All these aspects,” explains Beth, “assist the prisoners with articulation and self-awareness when they attend therapeutic rehabilitation courses. Prison life can be extremely stressful; participation in the arts can bring healing. Above all, communication through art helps to open up life-changing dialogue with self, whānau and the community.”
"Prison life can be extremely stressful; participation in the arts can bring healing."
CONTAIN brings together the artwork of two different groups of men within the prison arts programme. The first group, led by artist and tutor Andy Kingston, practices two days a week. Some are hobby artists while others are students studying towards NCEA levels one and two. For many of these men, it is their first time exhibiting.
The second group, led by Beth, are men who participate in arts initiatives four or five days a week. They are studying towards a Certificate in Art and Graphic Design (Lvl 4) through NorthTec as well as towards their Certificate in Small Business Management. Some are also engaged in Shakespeare Behind Bars, music programmes and the whakairo workshop where they are training to become professional carvers through Te Wānanga o Aotearoa. This group of men have been exhibiting their work in Auckland and Whangarei for several years and have built strong connections with New Zealand and international artists.
Exhibited at Village Arts, Kohukohu, this exhibition is particularly meaningful for those artists who whakapapa to the area. All artists use a pseudonym to protect their identity, and thought and care is taken to consider those in the community affected by crime. “It is important that we maintain the artists’ privacy,” says Beth, “but above all, respect victims of crime and ensure that all work falls within the kaupapa of our art programme: respect, integrity, community, creativity and collaboration … [The artists] also understand their position in society, and the audience. So, self-evaluation and self-editing of their work is a responsibility the artists take seriously.”
“It will be a homecoming of sorts, a joyful and challenging experience for the artists and the community. How can we contain that?”
Working to be respectful of both the artists and the community members, the Curators have taken great care to allow this complexity to be visible and to drive discussion. The flyer advertising the exhibition states, “It will be a homecoming of sorts, a joyful and challenging experience for the artists and the community. How can we contain that?”
Linda Montgomery, the Village Arts Gallery Manager says that they have received an overwhelmingly positive response to this exhibition by the local community. “The depth of content in each piece, the honesty, humour, and the astute observation have created an exhibition that has kept people in the gallery for a lot longer than usual.” The exhibition has drawn in people who don’t ordinarily visit the gallery and has allowed the beginnings of a form of conversation between the prisoners and the local community.
All proceeds from the artworks go towards supporting the Village Arts Trust and the KiwiMANA programme run by the Bald Angels Trust supporting vulnerable young adults in the Far North. Beth explains that this is a hugely important part of the exhibition for the men providing them with an opportunity to give back to their community and make reparation in some way.
The impact of the arts programmes offered by NRCF radiates to many parts of the men’s lives. Aside from building personal identity and new forms of self-expression, the programmes also build pathways to form connections outside the prison. As Beth explains,
“All of the applied arts onsite bring whānau, local employers, mentors and community organisations inside the wire, while the creative work also travels out. These networks assist the Department of Corrections, prisoners, whānau and the wider community in mapping pathways to successful reintegration and safer communities, through creative thinking and the application of new ideas.”
CONTAIN is exhibiting at Village Arts, Kohukohu, Hokianga until Sunday 10th December