It’s easy for an incarcerated person to live in negativity once he steps into a prison cell.
Correctional facilities are generally regarded as dreary, cursed places. There is a profound disconnection from the rest of the world.
The view out the window, if there is a window at all, is bleak and depressing. Every day there is that fear hanging over a prisoner’s head that there is a risk of losing his soul, a feeling of being pilloried inside that grim, forsaken place, the bottomless pit where there is no way out insight.
When a felon is locked up, their first few days of prison life are a mix of anger, a truncated sense of their future, and blown away hopes. The constancy of society’s protracted prejudices could, in time, produce deeply conflicted feelings and psychic scars.
There is a way a prisoner can get his soul out of the penitentiary confines, affirm his humaneness even as people refuse to let him regain it.
An inmate committed to reclusion perpetua and long-term sentence would, with prison officials’ nod, find it now conceivable to build their aborted dream house, virtually, within the prison walls. So they figure out ways to pass the time positively instead of merely hearing the grass grow outside their cell window.
Strength and renewal come from work. Rather than get pinned down by remorse and pangs of conscience, prisoners keep themselves occupied to make the idle times bearable—play basketball, karaoke, assist in prison mass, make Christmas lanterns, immerse in the Bible, and make art.
The New Bilibid Prison and its other facilities around the country conduct art programs for inmates—drawing, painting, sculpture, and woodworking—to help with their mental health to get them through each day. Art is a useful tool for therapy and a means by which prisoners communicate their hope and reliance to a spiritual truth that somehow got waylaid during their brush with the law.
The New Bilibid Prison established the art program Kulay in 1988 to help prisoners adapt to the outside world. They are taught the basics of painting, not based on textbooks or formal notions of what may be conventionally laid on a canvas, paper, cell walls, and other painting media. Tools and art materials include paint brushes, spray cans, colored pencils, and ballpoint pens.
Most works by these incarcerated artists are deeply personal and reflect a sort of healing, having found in what they do a sense of humanity. It’s a means of creative expression, of finding their voice in prison, of trying to do good things behind bars.
The artwork need little explaining and are glowingly colorful. They manifest a refreshing “smutlessness” here, a non-reluctant acceptance of the hard part of their life with a positive sense and a lightness of the spirit residing somewhere within them.
Here, paintings by prisoners become a sincere art. The bright orange prison uniform they wear, a stark reminder of confinement, has become a kaleidoscope of other colors that they can use as their artistry may dictate.
The Bureau of Corrections’ School of Fine Arts has partnered with Puesto Manila, an art gallery and curio shop located in historic Intramuros, Manila, to spotlight once again works by some of the current batch of their art students.
Most of the paintings echo certain aspects of religiosity that we may assume as telling evidence of their transformation—the Madonna and Child and Jesus in throes of pain—are recurring subjects.
Some have takes on cartoon figures, Philippine culture, landscapes, still life in Abstract or Expressionist styles. Influences by Filipino masters like Manansala, Joya, Amorsolo, and Magsaysay-Ho are easily recognized among the paintings, but there are other unmistakable bends toward a Lichtenstein which do not veer away from the level of personal creativity in the displayed oeuvre.
The images are no mean examples of art by persons kept behind bars who show willingness to work positively and in-depth despite their having to limit their expressions using merely a handful of art tools and elements.
The paintings are for sale, and, happily, the price tags will appeal to those just starting a collection.
The Puesto Manila exhibit is an admirable gesture to introduce to the Filipino mass an insight into the moot points between criminals and their victims, and how important it is for these prisoners to feel liberated through the medium of painting despite the lack of positive inspiration that the dark and humid prison cells offer.
Immersion in art can set these prisoners free and the paintbrushes and colored pencils are the key. Their paintings may be essentially wordless but their art could contribute to changing the jailhouse environment into a more bearable, more rewarding, healthier, and productive serving time.
Photos by Puesto Manila
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