Should Prisoners Living In Dark Jail Cells Be Learning Art?

Prisoners, who are a secluded and often discarded aspect of society, live in confinement in hopeless dark cells. Are they destined to simply suffer and wallow in guilt, sometimes for just petty crimes?

Should Prisoners Living In Dark Jail Cells Be Learning Art?
Khushbakht Islam, an NCA graduate in Fine Arts, recently visited Malir Cantt Jail Karachi to conduct a Fine Arts Workshop. Prisoners, who are a secluded and often discarded aspect of society, live in confinement in hopeless dark cells. Are they destined to simply suffer and wallow in guilt, sometimes for just petty crimes? In an earlier article I wrote on this topic, “On Prisons, Teaching and Literature…” for Naya Daur Media, I had contemplated on what kind of effect teaching in prisons would have on the teacher, student prisoner and society in general. In this previous article I had discussed the possibility of teaching literature to inmates, and here I will discuss the existence of art teaching in Karachi jails. I will do so in the form of a talk with Khushbakht, who recently had the actual experience of meeting Malir Cantt Jail prisoners and taught them some aspects of fine arts.

How did you come by the opportunity to teach at Malir Cantt Jail?

Sikandar Jogi, who is a friend, has been teaching art at Central Jail for more than a decade and encouraged me to conduct a workshop as well.

What were the reasons of your accepting to conduct this Fine Arts Workshop for inmates?

It was a difficult decision to make. At first, I was scared and wanted to give up the opportunity. It took me almost two months to decide that I should do this. I knew an opportunity like this would be great experience for me.  These prisoners are from our society and I cannot afford to be scared and sit back at home. I needed to teach something good that they can carry on. I wanted them to live a positive life ahead. I thought If I can teach them one good thing which may open doors for them, I should go for it. All of these thoughts made me go for it. I had never delivered a lecture and now I can proudly say I did it on this day.

How many prisoners were present and what was their gender?

There are almost 5000 prisoners in the Malir jail and I met several of them but only 35 of them attended the workshop. The prison was for men only. There were also a few male police officers. In fact, I was the only woman present there.

As a woman, did you at any point feel daunted by this task?

Not really. They were all pretty kind towards me. I was a bit uncomfortable at first because of the image we have of prison. But when I went there, it didn't feel like I was surrounded by so many prisoners. They felt like normal people to me.

How was your experience of visiting a jail and coming face to face with prisoners?

The environment of the prison was not as bad as I thought it would be. I went in with all the confidence. Everyone was kind and happy to see a new face. They didn't scare me at all. They were just as human as I am. I could see the spark in them that led them to join that class. (There was) eagerness to learn and achieve something.  I could see hope in their eyes. Even though they were going through a bad phase of life, they just didn’t want to give up. Well, all I could do was to bring smiles on their faces and managed to do so. I am proud of myself and I can now say I gave back a little piece of myself to this society…there are so many things to talk about. I wish I could explain everything in words but I just can't. I gave my first autograph to these people. They all wanted my name written on these pieces of papers. It was an amazing experience and I would love to go back and teach them more.

What concepts of Fine Arts did you teach them?

Honestly, I thought I would be teaching them about oil painting techniques but everything was so new to them. So I talked to them about the things they knew. I gave them a lecture about the things they could relate to. One of the inmates was a farmer and he couldn't understand any of the things I was saying until I mentioned the scarecrows. He was a farmer so he connected immediately and was happy to hear that he was an artist from the very beginning.

Could you tell us a bit more about the scarecrow connection?

Sure…I was telling them about cave art and how everyone is an artist. Everyone can learn about art and from the very beginning, humans have artistic abilities. I mentioned how in cave art, people used to draw things to scare the animals. And from that point Sikandar Jogi mentioned how farmers nowadays make scarecrows for farms. The inmate was a farmer himself and he got excited. He mentioned that he had made a few of these scarecrows for the farm without knowing that it is an art.

Can you describe some other exchanges that took place between you and the inmates?

Well, they are some of the best conversations I have ever had. At first, the inmates were a little intimidated but once the discussion started, they asked many questions. One of the questions was how to differentiate conceptual art and copy art -- they were thinking that because they are learning through pictures, they are somehow copying the work. I told them that they need to learn through imitation at first and once they have the basic knowledge, they can work on original conceptual art or contemporary art work.

An inmate mentioned that he wants to learn painting because his daughter loves to paint as well. And he wants to spend quality time with her once he is out of prison. Another inmate wanted to draw his dreams but was unable to capture the exact image.

I understand that it was my first time delivering a lecture and I might have overwhelmed them with so many new things. They might not have understood everything completely but I managed to bring happiness in their lives for two hours. They may get inspired and work with more interest in the future.

What was the level of knowledge that these prisoner students had?

They were beginners. I’d like to add that they are not only learning art and music in jail but also how to communicate in Urdu… how to present themselves once they are out of jail.

Did you bring your own art practice to the students in any way?

In my artworks, I mostly talk about harassment, but it doesn't end there. I stress on why it is happening in our society so much and how to deal with this problem. I believe there must be some lack of education that is leading them to commit such horrible crimes. To punish them, we have laws but to teach them to respect everyone's lives, we need to educate them.

Art helps in so many aspects of life that I thought I should find a way to help these people through art. That is where the technique comes - scribbling - that I used throughout my thesis. I figured out that whenever I feel low or the feeling of anger overcomes me, I can take it out through scribbling. It helped me survive my tough times. I told the same things to the inmates. I told them to just scribble without thinking about the outcome and it could help them with their anger issues as well. I’m not sure how many of them will practice this but all I can do is to convey the message.

Would you want to conduct more such workshops in the future?

I would love to conduct more such workshops in the future. I even suggested that I can go to female prisons to teach them about textile techniques I know about. I can ask people to deliver lectures on computer related works. We really need to help these people now so that when they come out of prison, they have some skill to start their life again.

Do you think people should shed their negativity regarding teaching prisoners?

I believe people should just try to think positively and give back what they have learnt. It is important because a ray of hope for these prisoners is necessary to bring them to the right track. Everyone makes mistakes but we cannot discard them for life. Giving them another chance to be a better human is important. They are humans like us and they are part of us.

Would you recommend others to delve into such activities?

I would definitely encourage more people to engage in such activities. I believe in giving the inmates enough opportunities so that they can learn how to survive and they won't think about committing crimes in the future. By teaching them about art and craft, about music…once they come out of prison, they won’t feel alienated. They will be able to find work and adjust to normal life. They may earn as well.

It’s tough to come out of prison and find work. Teaching them about different things will help them find jobs and survive. So yes, I encourage other teachers to join this work.

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