Freedom of expression through art
- On September 4, 2019
- September / October 2019
Freedom of expression through art
For more than 25 years, the Boom Gate Art Gallery has given Long Bay Correctional Complex inmates a creative outlet and improved their mental health.
Some of the most frequent visitors to the Boom Gate Art Gallery are partners and children of the inmates who create the works on display.
“Often the families will come to the gallery to see their loved one’s work, and they can’t believe the quality of the art – the kids will come running up to the wall and you can see how proud they are of their father,” says Damian Moss, who began co-managing the gallery in 2017. “That’s really rewarding.”
Mr Moss has seen the transformative power art has for inmates – many of whom have had very few positive creative and educational experiences in their lives before their incarceration.
He recalls one inmate with mental health issues. “He never spoke to anyone. He couldn’t even speak with the psychologist. But then he started painting and it completely changed his personality. Through art, he was able to tell the story of his past.”
The Boom Gate Gallery opened as a trial at Long Bay in 1992 and sells paintings, drawings, sculptures and other artistic creations by inmates.
The artworks, which are produced as part of the Art Behind Bars program, not only give inmates an opportunity to use their time productively, but they provide a source of rehabilitation, income, and potential skill to help them earn income upon their release.
Inmates are referred by custodial and non-custodial staff, psychologists, welfare and education staff. They are encouraged to practise and develop their art in their cells.
“Making art is an inherently therapeutic process because it’s quiet and focused, and for many inmates, it’s the first ‘honest’ money they’ve earned in their life,” Mr Moss says.
If the work is of high enough standard, arrangements are made to feature the art in the gallery.
Up to 25 artists are represented at any time, with prices ranging from $25 for individually painted cards; $70 for decorated clap sticks, while paintings start at $50. Up to 75% of the sale price goes to the artist, with the remainder used for administration and art supplies. Prices are determined jointly by the artist and the gallery.
“People are gobsmacked by the variety and the technical skill,” Mr Moss says.
More than 80% of the works exhibited in the gallery are created by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander inmates. Mr Moss adds that “their work is full of meaning and has a strong sense of colour and design.”
When prisoners sell their first piece, they are often elated, Mr Moss says. “This is such a huge boost to their self-esteem and confidence – often it sparks a new beginning for inmates.”
He adds that in many cases the money is passed on to inmates’ families.
For the first time ever, the Boom Gate Gallery is partnering (and will be a satellite venue) with UNSW’s Big Anxiety Festival. The festival, which is the largest mental health and arts festival in the world, will be held 27 September to 3 November. This year’s focus is on Empathy and Stigma; Care and Healing; and Suicide Prevention.
Professor Jill Bennett, Artistic Director of the Festival says, “The arts are the best means we have for sharing complex experience. They show us what we don’t know about ourselves and others. They shine light on the relationships and social settings that help or hinder mental health, and they are a means to transform those relationships.
Currently 65% of Australians with a mental health problem don’t seek help. The Big Anxiety Festival’s mission is to engage that 65% – as well as all those who feel ‘the system’ doesn’t yet deliver what we or our communities need. The Festival is about finding ways to connect, to hear and be heard, and to make change – breaking down the barriers people experience and building better futures.”
Prisoners and detainees have significantly higher health needs than the general population. In addition to facing higher levels of serious health conditions such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes, there is also a higher prevalence of mental illness.
The Boom Gate Gallery identified particular inmates whose mental health has been improved through the process of making art to participate in the festival.
For more information on the Big Anxiety Festival visit www.thebiganxiety.org. The Boom Gate Gallery is open Friday to Sunday, 9am – 3pm, 1300 Anzac Parade, Matraville NSW 2036.