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Exhibition highlights art by Bali prison inmates

Richard Horstman
Richard Horstman

Artivist, observes and reports on developments in the Bali and Indonesian art scenes

Ubud | Fri, December 1, 2017 | 03:20 pm
Exhibition highlights art by Bali prison inmates

Inmates participate in art workshops at Klungkung prison. (Mary Lou Pavlovicjpg/File)

Australian contemporary artist, Mary Lou Pavlovic, was advised in early April by the art gallery apexart in New York that the proposal she'd written in response to apexart's Franchise Exhibition open call, offering four funded exhibition opportunities, had been accepted. Pavlovic ranked third out of almost 400 anonymous proposals from 61 countries. Over 200 international art expert jurors had voted for her proposal to curate an exhibition in Bali about artists' and prisoners' collaborations arising from prison workshops. 

apexart is a nonprofit arts organization in Lower Manhattan, New York City, funded in part by the Andy Warhol Foundation, which offers opportunities for independent curators and emerging and established artists, and challenges ideas about art, its practice and its curation.

“I received an email advising me to contact apexart's director, Steven Rand, who said he had good news,” Pavlovic said. “So I thought I'd better call apex and tell them of a hoax someone was running about them. Then, when I called, to my surprise, they confirmed that I had been selected, and that it wasn’t a hoax at all!”

From 2012 to 2016, while in Bali, Pavlovic had been a regular visitor to inmates inside Bali prisons, where she witnessed the humanitarian benefits of art programs. “Prisoners' lives are placed on hold and their space confined to the parameters of a cell. I realized that although prisoners couldn’t physically move very far, they could travel great distances with their imaginations by participating in arts activities,” said the artist, who lives and works in both Bali and Mittagong, Australia, and completed a PhD at Monash University, Melbourne.

“Inmates could also learn valuable skills and undertake enjoyable activities to relieve the daily monotony of prison life," she added.

Inmates' artworks: flowers and berries set in resin.Inmates' artworks: flowers and berries set in resin. (Mary Lou Pavlovicjpg/File)

Pavlovic was also aware that a practically universal function of modern prisons is to separate prisoners from the rest of society. An exhibition involving prisoners and artists, she thought, would help to break down this barrier. It would allow the public an opportunity to reflect on their own perceptions of prisoners and prisons, along with giving the inmates an opportunity to be seen in the role of artistic producers, rather than solely as criminals with little to offer society.

The upcoming exhibition, "Dipping in the Kool Aid" (American prison slang for entering uninvited into a conversation), was organized and curated by Pavlovic and will be held at the Tony Raka Art Gallery, in Ubud, Bali, next year from March 4 to 31. The show will feature the artwork of prisoners, artwork produced from workshops given by contemporary artists in Bali prisons and independently produced studio works by some of the invited artists relating to aspects of prison and the incarceration system.

Pavlovic is interested in taking the exhibition beyond a community-type art show in which members of a social group are asked to express themselves through art, and the therapeutic benefits of that process become the exhibition theme. She added, “Exhibitions displaying prisoners' artwork are common, but I think that if our project’s aim was only to display their artworks, regardless of their artistic capabilities, then professional artists may not need to be involved at all.

“There are so many highly capable, creative people in prisons, and so I thought that a more interesting and challenging way to address the exhibition, than a straightforward community art show, would be through a type of artistic laboratory in which the artists' and prisoners' skills are equally valued.”

Inmates at Klungkung prison art are seen producing artwork.Inmates at Klungkung prison art are seen producing artwork. (Mary Lou Pavlovicjpg/File)

With these ideas in mind, Pavlovic invited foreign international artists and Indonesian artists to give a range of workshops predominantly in Klungkung prison in eastern Bali. The workshops began in August and will continue until March 2018, just prior to the exhibition. East Javanese artist Djunaidi Kenyut conducts workshops inviting inmates to etch their own portraits onto postcard-size mirrors. The prisoners become active agents in shaping his idea and in the overall work. The final result is ghostly etchings with viewers reflected in them.

“In Klungkung prison there are about 100 inmates, of which there is one person who is very enthusiastic to participate in the workshops, and there are others who like to join in. But I am very happy to witness their passion to know and learn to try new activities such as drawing,” Kenyut said.

Pavlovic provides lectures for female inmates involving embedding living things, like flowers, leaves and berries, in resin to preserve life. At the prisoner’s request the group has incorporated butterflies, but as the program continues the prisoners will incorporate items into their works that are important to them, such as family photos.

Other workshops conducted include East Javanese artist Imam Sucahyo, who is posting drawings for inmates and requesting input from outsiders, and Australian contemporary sculptor Rodney Glick, who has invited prisoners to his café, Seniman, at the Tony Raka Art Gallery, for work experience and to learn about art.

Glick said the Seniman coffee ethos is to create happiness. “What better way for people who crave freedom than to work a little and enjoy a coffee on the outside!” Other artists included in the upcoming exhibition are internationally renowned Indonesian artists Agung Mangu Putra and Angki Purbandono, along with the Prison Art Program's founding members and Elizabeth Gower, Alannah Russack and Pavlovic.

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Dipping in the Kool Aid

Upcoming March 3 – 21, 2018

Tony Raka Art Gallery, Mas, Ubud

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Richard Horstman, a cultural observer with over 25 years’ experience in Indonesia, has supported the Bali and Indonesian art scenes for more than nine years as a journalist, writer, art tourism presenter and advisor at Cata Odata Art Space in Ubud. A bridge between the art world and the public, he has been published in The Jakarta Post and various other newspapers.

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