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This powerful exhibition is showcasing art from prisons in northern England

We caught up with curator Lady Unchained to discuss the story behind this emotionally charged exhibition.

03 Jun

Frustration, HM Prison & Young Offender Institution Forest Bank via Koestler Arts

With prison populations on the rise and projected to increase to 98,700 by 2026, art as a means of self-expression has become more important than ever. Soul Journey to Truth is an emotionally charged exhibition curated by Lady Unchained (Brenda Birungi), shining a light on the creative talent within prisons and secure settings, as well as people on probation in the North West of England. 

Through the mediums of art, music and writing, a selected 135 works explore various themes in relation to the criminal justice system. Though the names of the artists aren’t known to protect their identities, the pieces are strikingly individual, translating the heightened emotions of life in prison and secure settings such as hospitals, young offender institutions and immigration centres.

As the artists are of mixed ability and come from all walks of life, it’s only natural that the art on show differs stylistically. However, the shared experience of the British criminal justice system does create a heartbreaking harmony between each artwork – this can be seen in the use of bold colours which contrast the clinical realities of imprisonment, as well as the emotional exhaustion in the subject matter of many pieces.

Most of the artwork was created during the pandemic and entered through the 2020 Koestler Awards (an annual competition where people in the criminal justice system share their artwork). The exhibition opened on 17 May 2021 at HOME Manchester and will be closing on 6 June 2021.

From the Outside Looking In, HM Prison Buckley Hall (left) and Forgive Me, HM Prison & Young Offender Institution Forest Bank, Commended Award for Calligraphy (right)

gal-dem caught up with Lady Unchained, the 33-year-old poet and curator from south east London to find out more about how the exhibition came together:

gal-dem: How did you end up curating this exhibition?

Lady Unchained: I was sent to prison at the age of 21 for GBH (grievous bodily harm) because my sister was attacked by three women and I acted in self-defence. So I ended up in the criminal justice system and was sentenced to two and a half years. There are so many things that happened to me through my prison experience and my eyes were really opened. 

“You can create all this amazing art, but you might not want to share it with nobody because people might start thinking you’re too soft or emotional”

After this, I created a platform called Unchained Poetry, which is for artists with experiences of the criminal justice system. Through that, I found National Prison Radio and became a host for them and then I started doing events with Unchained Poetry. From all this work, I’ve been on panels, gone into prisons, and have led and facilitated poetry workshops and have worked with a youth offending service. And so just before the lockdown, [Koestler Arts] asked me to curate this exhibition!

Why was it important for you to curate this exhibition?

Because I know firsthand what it takes to be creative in those spaces. You can [create] all this amazing [art], but you might not want to share it with nobody because people might start thinking you’re too soft or emotional and you don’t want people to judge you. So I know that it’s a real journey to create these pieces of art.  

Window, Kemple View, Julia Rogerson Highly Commended Award for Drawing

Why should people come and see this exhibition?

If most people are like me before jail, they probably won’t believe the stuff that happens in prison. And they need to go there to experience the music and artwork and look at the experience of being inside from the eyes of the artist because each artwork has a story.

How did you decide which work to choose for the exhibition?

All of the selections had to be made over Zoom because we were in lockdown. If I could have selected all of the artwork, I would have! Just because I want everyone’s creations to be acknowledged. 

The only way I can explain picking the 135 pieces is that I wanted artwork that was telling me a story that I felt I understood. And this is why it’s called Soul Journey to Truth because it was just that realisation that everybody is on that soul journey in prison – people just trying to figure out what it is that they can give back to the world.

Soul Journey to Truth takes its title from the word ‘Sojourner’, meaning a person who resides temporarily in a place, and from Sojourner Truth – a Black American abolitionist and women’s rights activist.

And how did you pick the themes?

There’s A Moment For Self Reflection, Forest and Animals, Texts, Paths and Black History Dedication and each one of the sections has its own meaning. 

The self-reflection part of the exhibition is devoted to the realisation of when you are in prison or a secure hospital and are trying to figure out why you’re there. It’s also a chance to find out who you were before all of it and who you will be after you get out. That’s why there are so many windows and mirrors in some of the artworks.

“The Black History Dedication theme was crucial because unfortunately Black people are hugely overrepresented in prisons and secure hospitals”

The forest theme reminded me of conversations when you’re in jail and you feel like no one, apart from your family, knows where you are. You have to make your way through this crazy forest that you’ve never been in with no sat nav or Google.

The animal section symbolised the want to escape from prison but also seeing the freedom of birds and wishing you could fly like them. The path was about finding your way back home to your family and loved ones. And the Black History Dedication theme was crucial because unfortunately Black people are hugely overrepresented in prisons and secure hospitals.

It’s Not About ‘I’, It’s About Us HM Prison Thorn Cross, First-Time Entrant Award for Printmaking, 2020 (left) and African Woman with Child HM Prison Risley, Gold Award for Portrait, 2020 (right)

Which work resonated with you the most?

There’s one piece in particular that stood out the most for me. It’s a watercolour of an African lady with a baby wrapped around her. When you look at that piece, the woman is happy, her clothes are not torn, the baby is secure and healthy. It’s just a beautiful piece of artwork.

Are you hoping to do more curating in the future?

Oh, yeah. 100% I actually have a poem called ‘The Forgotten People’ which came out not so long after George Floyd’s murder, and it represents my personal campaign against the racism within the criminal justice system. After writing that, I want to do a street exhibition, where we plaster the pictures and names of Black people who have died within the criminal justice system.

*The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

All Stand Together HM Prison Send, Transformation Commended Award for Sculpture, 2020 (left) and Frustration, HM Prison & Young Offender Institution Forest Bank, First-Time Entrant Award for Drawing (right)

Soul Journey to Truth is produced in partnership with HOME and Koestler Arts as a part of Ripples of Hope Festival, which takes place on 15-19 Sep 2021 at HOME. The exhibition opened on 17 May 2021 at HOME Manchester and will be closing on 6 June 2021. Tickets are free but have to be booked online.