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Art Breaks Through Prison Walls

Sabina CasagrandeJune 3, 2002

An unusual art project in Cologne seeks to draw attention to the everyday situation of women sitting behind bars. It also gives them a chance to prove to themselves that they are capable of creating something special.

These bars can't lock up creativity.Image: AP

It’s not the most likely place to be visiting an art opening. No champagne, no hors d'oeuvres, no saxophone player in the corner – just the prison band, steel doors, barred windows and a high wall.

But a group of women in Cologne’s prison want to use art to break through this wall, at least symbolically. The prison’s art therapist, Klaus Heilmann, came up with the idea.

When he saw that the Women’s Museum in nearby Bonn was planning an exhibit which focussed on violence against women, he approached them about working together.

"We thought it fit really well to the theme, as violence is a major issue in prison," explains Sabine Heinen from the museum’s art education department. "We thought it would also be a good chance for these women to release energies and get rid of their aggressions."

Heinen and her colleague, Eva Wal, put together a concept and got right to work. For two weeks, the artists worked with 13 imprisoned women. The results came together on a three-meter-high stone column, displayed in the prison chapel.

"A superb feat"

Two sides of the column hold box-shaped wooden instruments. Each one was built by one of the imprisoned women and includes a carved element she designed. On the remaining two sides of the stone column are clay tiles, also each individually designed and completed.

Twelve of the 13 women involved are in jail for drug-related offences. Heilmann says that the project shows that drug-addicted women are not what they’re made out to be.

"That’s what is so wonderful about this exhibit," he says. "What you see here is actually a superb feat in strength, energy and staying power. In my opinion, drug-addicted women are the most creative of all."

For the two artists from the Women’s Museum, working on such a project inside a prison was quite a change of pace from their usual activities in art education. Wal points out these women are not coming to you in their free time to do something "nice".

"This here is a personal space, but it’s locked into a very tough daily routine," she says. "And this life isn’t just tough because it’s in prison, but also because these women that are in here already had a hell of a tough life."

Breaking through

The project is not about escaping this tough life, though, but rather breaking through it. That’s why the initiators chose to call it "Durchbruch" or "breakthrough", says Heilmann.

"On the one hand, it’s breaking through from the inside to the outside, to present ourselves to the world. But it’s also breaking through in the sense of breaking through myself as a person, breaking out of lethargy and taking action."

The stone column is expected to be moved from the prison chapel to the new district court building in Bonn later this year. The fact that the general public will see their work also means a lot to the women.

Laura says it was one motivating factor for her to take part in the project. "It’s very important for me that people on the other side of this wall understand what sort of situations, emotions and expressions we women here in prison go through."

And Angela hopes it will make people think differently about drug addicts. "This project proves that - especially as a drug addict - you can show that you are capable of something."

But what really made this art opening different from any other is that these 13 women could see – many for the first time – that they have accomplished something. And this realization could help them take back control over their lives once they are released and on the other side of the high walls.