This year’s Artists on the Inside exhibition offers a diverse range of perspectives across various media, fostering connections between the community and exhibiting artists who are currently incarcerated in South Australian prisons (Image: Anisha Pillarisetty)

By Anisha Pillarisetty | @nishkinsilk

Artists on the Inside is a group exhibition on display in The Bob Hawke Prime Ministerial Centre (Hawke Centre)’s Kerry Packer Civic Gallery, located at the University of South Australia City West Campus.

The exhibition showcases the work of artists incarcerated in six South Australian prisons.

With over 80 entries judged by arts industry professionals, this year’s show is the largest display of artwork by adults incarcerated in South Australia since the exhibition’s conception in 2012.

The artworks span various media – from inventive soap sculptures and football jerseys, to intricate crochet work and painstakingly detailed paintings – and are accompanied by diverse artist statements that allow the viewer to engage with a depth and breadth of perspectives. 

The exhibition has the ongoing support of the Commissioner for Victims’ Rights. The artists are not identified, and all artworks and accompanying statements have been approved for public viewing by the Department of Correctional Service (DCS)’s Victim Services Unit.

In a statement accompanying a large-scale realist painting, one artist said they were moved by paintings from an “early age” and were “giving painting a try inside now”.

“I try to set challenges for myself with each picture to learn as much as I can each time,” the artist said.

Phoebe Azer, from the DCS, said this particular artist had never painted before, and had produced two other large-scale paintings on display.

“Many of the exhibiting artists had an art practice before they were incarcerated,” she said.

A diorama, titled “Cultural Living”, is another artist’s portrayal of their grandmother’s daily activities.

“As a young girl I learn and have a yearning to want to know about my culture as a Ngarrindjeri woman,” she said in a statement.

A painting titled “Always”, drawing the viewer in with a striking use of colour, depicts silhouettes of people hoisting up an Aboriginal flag against the backdrop of a starry sky.

“Always. Always was, always will be,” the artist’s statement reads.

In an anonymous email interview with CityMag, an exhibiting artist said they used “uplifting” themes to “brighten up an environment that often lacks colour and positive thinking for others.”

“It is important to be aware that while prisoners may have made mistakes at varying levels, they once were contributing members of society and should be allowed and provided with every opportunity to rehabilitate and move on from their past failings without lifelong persecution,” they told CityMag.

Visitors are encouraged to vote for their favourite artwork and leave a comment, as part of the People’s Choice Award, by filling out a form and dropping it in a box across from the entrance. The comments and awards will be sent to the artists.

The show is accompanied by edited written contributions, by incarcerated writers, presented in booklets also titled Artists on the Inside.

A poem called “From the Inside” opens with:

“I look out my window

There’s the razor wire fence

A light pole in front

A crow sits atop

Scanning the terrain

It comes and it goes

From inside to outside

Free as a bird.”

An introductory statement on the exhibition tells visitors: “The program enables incarcerated individuals to express themselves to the wider community and provides insight into the world of correctional facilities.”

The annual exhibition, which is part of the 2021 South Australian Living Arts (SALA) festival, is co-presented and supported by the Hawke Centre and the DCS.

The Hawke Centre’s Executive Director Jacinta Thompson said the centre has been a “proud supporter and co-presenter” since 2018, when the exhibition moved to the Kerry Packer Civic Gallery.

“We are thrilled to see the artwork on display once again,” Thompson said. “Artists on the Inside continues The Hawke Centre’s commitment to engage with our community, enabling groups to conduct important outreach.”

The show’s accompanying statement says approximately 2,986 people were incarcerated in South Australia at June 2021.

“Despite Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people being 2.5 per cent of the South Australian population, they make up approximately 23 per cent of the prison population,” it reads.

“This percentage is even higher for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women.”

In an episode of Speaking Out aired in April, distinguished professor Larissa Behrendt said that while Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have been drawing attention to the injustice of the carceral system for decades, public awareness has grown over the past year.

Behrendt went on to introduce a panel of Indigenous scholars and activists speaking as part of this year’s John Barry lecture, titled “Abolition on Indigenous land: alternative futures and criminology’s role”, which was held online and hosted by the University of Melbourne.

The panelists spoke about the inherent violence of the carceral system and its role in colonisation and dispossession, the criminalisation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and transformative community and care-based alternatives to the prison industrial complex, among other things.

Artists on the Inside will run until August 27 at the Hawke Centre’s Kerry Packer Civic Gallery which is open weekdays 9am-5pm and until 6pm on Thursdays.