A review of Freedom, curated by Ai Weiwei


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.

Masked, Arbury Court, portrait, 2022.
Almost Perfect, HM Prison Dovegate, Silver Award for Ceramics, 2022.

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.

Pepsi Old on New, HM Prison Isle of Wight (Albany), Highly Commended Award for Painting, 2022.
Lighthouse, Victoria Gardens, Watercolour and Gouache, 2022.