Using the transformative power of art to build community in the prison

In the 1980s, my mother has been working as an educator in the prison of my hometown, Trikala. As a result, I have been countless times inside the prison premises, and I am accustomed to this environment since the age of 10. Coming from this background, with my family aware of the power of education and creative action for those who are serving in a prison, I always knew I would end up doing something within this field.

Our societies usually perceive inmates as people that deserve a second chance. Instead, I believe that inmates need to be convinced to give to society a second chance, and trust it again. Having a clear understanding of the challenges, and having a background in visual arts, I wanted to make museums understand that they have a social role, complementary to the preservation of cultural heritage. They ought to get out of their box and get in closer contact with the society. The National Museum of Contemporary Art already has already been working with communities inside the prison system. In April 2015, as part of my thesis on designing a museum outreach program that is open to vulnerable social groups, I started the project in the prison of Trikala.

Since inmates were not allowed to visit museums, we started designing our own, inside the prison. We collected all art pieces from the last 8 years -ranging from photography, sculpting, pottering and audio to texts and design. And we did standard museum work, such as documentation or writing captions for each piece.

The name “MESA” (= “inside” in Greek) came through elections, which involved campaign speeches and polls. It was a very empowering process, because, for most of the people, this was the first time they voted. Once the name was decided, we offered information and guidance about things like logo design. But the logo was designed one night by the inmates themselves inside the prison wing. As a second step, we thought it would be nice to open the museum to other structures, acting as curators. We approached other prisons and some of the artwork was sent to the National Museum of Modern Arts in Athens, the whole process designed and executed by the team.

This was the first opening of the National Museum of Modern Arts in Athens, and I was very proud that this large museum was open to the work of a young curator and that of a very stigmatized social group. The project team comprised of 12 artists and architects, but there were about 40 contributors in total (visual artists, volunteers, museum staff, etc). Including the inmates at the Centre of Therapy for Addicts, this number was raised to 100. In the prison school, we realize aspects like the notion of collaboration and democracy, through art. In total, we work with four prison structures and a Centre of Therapy for Addicts (KETHEA), which receives addict inmates, with the prospect of detoxification. Eighty percent of our community is younger than 35 years old. Another fifteen percent is up to 50, and five percent up to 70 years of age. This has mainly to do with the fact that we work with prison schools. Ninety-five percent of the inmates we are working with are immigrants, but we are also working with the Centre of Therapy for Addicts (KETHEA) which hosts mainly Greeks.

We collaborate with the Ministries of Justice and Education, the Centre of Therapy for Addicts (KETHEA), the National Museum of Modern Arts and the Municipality of Korydallos, the city hosting Greece’s largest prison. The schools are operating under the auspices of the prison system of Greece, and there are always certain procedures to be followed. The Ministry of Justice needs to offer permission to enter the prison premises.

We didn’t face many institutional problems, because as the project gets established, the resistance drops. There are, of course, problems. For example, most times I find myself at the center of everything, having to manage from finances to human resources. However, such operations involve activities that cannot be handled by one person. This is why we are now talking about creating an operational team, that will be able to take decisions and execute the project. The members are already identified and we are now meeting to discuss future plans.

MESA is currently an informal team, but we are now in talks about the creation of a legal entity, so we can manage funds and scale our projects. Meanwhile, Greek authorities have declared that they would give priority to education over security - something that is a very strong commitment. We are waiting for replies from the Ministries, in order to see whether we can be part of any public programs.

We don’t consider MESA as a lesson, but as a collaborative creative office. Everything is decided in the circle - my opinion doesn’t count more than theirs. We always try to have our own rules, but we also know how we have to behave according to the rules of a confined prison environment. If some of them look dumb, then we know we need to try change them slowly. This doesn’t mean that we compromise our action in order to avoid conflict with the authorities, but it is a relationship of trust that has to be built very carefully. For this reason, we are also offering meticulous training to our team.

The authorities are very open, but there is still lots to be done. I would like, for example, to be able to get the team out of the prison, in order to join in the exhibition. It was very difficult for me at the opening of the exhibition at the National Museum of Contemporary Art, since the team was not allowed to participate. My team was inside the prison, and I was there, in a different environment, and had to talk on their behalf.

Through the project, the team is able to build several life skills. Maybe the most important one is leadership since everybody is responsible for something and the team is co-managed collectively. For inmates, the project cultivates the sense of collaboration and taking up responsibility. These might not be skills per se, but are important for those who are inside the prison. Another important aspect of working together is the ability to exercise crisis management, something that is important to them, but also to me. It is important that everyone understands how to bring the result to the team. And then, there is a set of skills related to the arts and other social issues.

Working inside the prison is not an easy task. You need to always maintain a distance. Not between humans, but you need to understand your limits and protect yourself emotionally. One way of achieving this is not to talk about or listen to personal issues. Surely, this becomes increasingly difficult over time. You need to have respect and trust, and everything needs to be clear to everyone from the very beginning. To be able to set the goals transparently, and not function, nor to be considered as a “teacher” but as a collaborator. As a principle, we never ask, and never want to know, about what type of crimes have resulted in somebody ending up in prison.

The biggest challenge is, maybe, how to mobilize the society. The best way is to do this slowly and gradually, with actions like this at the National Museum of Contemporary Arts, that attract publicity. We have tried to come out with quality art, backed up by solid artistic work and curation, so the initiative doesn’t receive a “thumbs up” just out of compassion, but because of the integrity of the results. Our aim was to communicate with the society equally and to be proud of it.

Ok, just another day at work.

So your work/office space is a prison, members of your team are inmates, and it’s not a one off because you are setting up a proper organisation to turn this into something sustainable, do I get it right?

So many fiction-like cultural references come to mind :slight_smile: Really inspiring, and from reallife examples it reminds of the Brazilian Wasteland and how wasted human potential can be turned into art.

If you are able to spin this into a social economy / professional re-insertion kind of venture where you make a case about skill training, you might be able to access resources easier than under artistic education or creative industry… especially if Greece has some subsidies/ funding left for that field.

Also, is there anywhere online where the museum works can be seen?