To be free behind bars

By Dimithri Wijesinghe

Photos Eshan Dasanayaka

On 2 March, the Welikada Prison launched an art exhibition titled “Supiri Ruu” under the patronage of the Minister of Justice, Human Rights, and Legal Reform Nimal Siripala de Silva at the Colombo Public Library auditorium from 9 a.m.-5 p.m.

The theme of the event was “Despite being imprisoned, our hidden talents remain free” and the exhibition, displaying a total of 162 artworks courtesy of 62 prisoners, was on until 4 March.

Conducted under the guidance of Prisons Commissioner General T.M. Jayasiri Vijayanath Tennakoon, the exhibition which provided entrance to the general public completely free of charge allowed audiences to purchase the artworks by the inmates and all proceeds were credited to the Prisoner Welfare Fund.

The exhibition was an eye-opening event and unsurprisingly featured many an allegory for freedom. In addition, the majority of the art pieces showcased landscapes of nature and serene environments, with there being a lot of religious symbolism etched into most of the work.

The art pieces featured were all contributed by inmates who were part of a select group that took part in a month-long workshop carried out by the Welikada Prison. The programme featured a number of educators and instructors coming in to provide a well-rounded experience for the participants, including Department of Cultural Affairs artist and National Art Gallery Lead Instructor Jayaratne Tissera.

Speaking about his students, Tissera stated: “I am very proud of these students; some of them are have natural-born talents, there were also those who were imprisoned for short terms who then went on to attend the exhibition after being discharged, and of course there were also participants waiting on death row.”

Speaking to The Sunday Morning Brunch, such a prisoner on death row, who had contributed to the exhibition, shared: “Had we received this discipline of honing our skills and focusing on art when we were young, then it is likely that some for us may not be in the situation we are today. But it is hopeless; we are not getting out.”

In Sri Lanka, the prison employs many methods of rehabilitation including vocational training, religious and spiritual education, mediation, and also art, according to Prisons Commissioner General Tennakoon. “Art is a fanatic way to alleviate anguish, and to calm ones disposition,” he said.

Welikada Prison Chief Correctional Officer N.P.S. Dassanayake said: “In the world today, punishment is not the accepted way, and rehabilitation is the proposed method to deal with those who break the law and commit crimes. There are many ways in which rehabilitation is possible and art is one such medium. It also enhances a person’s skill and possibly allows them to pursue a career once they are fully rehabilitated.”

“Supiri Ruu” is the sequel to the prison’s previous exhibition titled “Sira Novu Sithuwam”, and both exhibitions awarded prizes which consisted of everyday prisoner necessities like soap, toothpaste, and sanitary items and in the previous exhibition, both first and second place was awarded to an inmate who had been imprisoned for over 40 years and had even made an attempt to escape once.

The artwork displayed tugged at the viewer’s heart strings in that they were pleading declarations of regret and hopeful illustrations of futures and dreams familiar and revisited often by the artists.

A wonderful initiative adopted by the prison’s administration, if you are an art enthusiast, and if there ever is a third installment of the exhibition, it is something you mustn’t miss.