Natacha Galvez taught art history to inmates at Fleury-Mérogis. She is head of communications for the organisation Art et Prison. She is studying for her doctorate in philosophie esthétique and her thesis is on the creation of art in the prison environment. The following is our interview with her.
Knowing you can take part in a cultural activity provides a break in the daily routine of being in prison: they are no longer in just a state of waiting, they are also searching for meaning.
Prison Insider. How do prison administrators use art in their environment?¶
Natacha Galvez. Art first started in prisons around 1945 under the Amor reform. Art classes were a way of supervising inmates: putting them in a specific situation where they could be observed by a person in charge of analysing their behaviour.
This simulation of life on the outside in a limited space allows “sociable” and “anti-social” behaviours to come out, and to classify them as more or less adaptable, in order to “remake” their personality.
The institutional implementation of cultural activities in prison is first and foremost a display of knowledge and of power. Of knowledge, because educators are responsible for observing the inmates; of power, because the better a prisoner behaves, the better the detention conditions will be.
Things began to change in the 1970s, when the workshops were no longer used to observe inmates and to classify them, but to transform the individual through art. It was a way of improving their living conditions, to “humanise” prisons. This prison humanisation was part of a movement to try and improve detention conditions. However, Michel Foucault points out that this reform only re-enforces the authorities to punish and discipline. Prisons improve when reforms are an intrinsic part of their operations: the prison system ensures its ongoing survival by cultivating a great capacity for adaptation.
Since the protocols signed between the Ministries of Culture and of Justice during the 1980s, there have been various projects in prisons (dance, visual arts, theatre, music, writing workshops, etc.). There is usually no restriction on the part of prison administrators regarding the type of art proposed if everyone’s security is guaranteed. The creation of art is often hampered by a lack of sufficient space. Prisons lack space for the workshops, and so very few inmates can take part.
It must be recalled that the two objectives of prison administrations are security and rehabilitation. If art is to be part of prison life, it is for the purpose of rehabilitation: the official dictum is that art improves and transforms individuals and helps them to “re-adapt” to society.
NG. Each inmate has a different approach to art. First of all, there are many individual forms of artistic endeavors in prison, aside from the proposed art workshops. Many are musicians and some are writers. These works remain in the cells and so are hard to access.
As for my students, I realized that their perception of art is much keener than ours. The very fact that they are deprived makes them place more importance on, and a greater appreciation of, the art work they learn about. Before going into the prison, I was filled with the idealistic notion of what art can contribute to prison life, the notion of art as liberating and transforming an individual. However, my experience has shown me that this liberation is not easy to accomplish, particularly with people who are deprived of their liberty.
Art does not “liberate” them. It enables them sometimes to get in touch with their feelings again, to regain control of their body, especially during body movement cultural workshops such as dance.
It is less the case for visual arts classes. I still remember an inmate who once refused to sit: “I sit down all day, here I want to stand,” he told me.
There is no care for the body in prison. A body in prison is maltreated. The detention experience leaves physical impacts (reduced visual field, somatic illnesses, etc…). Some inmates keep fit by weightlifting, but their bodies are always under stress, always uptight. Cultural activities, like dance, offer another approach to body care, a more sensory one.
An art class, no matter in what discipline, offers a moment in time during which inmates can focus and not think of the time that is passing by and can forget their detention. Knowing you can take part in a cultural activity provides a break in the daily routine of being in prison: they are no longer in just a state of waiting, they are also searching for meaning. They all give different reasons for taking visual arts classes: for some, it’s to learn art techniques (one of them actually applied to study art at the Sorbonne); for others, more than art per se, it’s meeting others that is important. Their approach to their art is also very personal. Some take their works back to their cell to display. Others are afraid to show their sensitive side to their fellow inmates. Some stole the works of other inmates that they thought were the best ones, while others tore theirs up at the end of the classes, saying “what counts is not creating as such, but being present in the moment.”
NG. For an inmate, classes are a time to catch one’s breath. There is no prison staff around, only a guard who stays between the classrooms to intervene if necessary and to announce the start and end of the classes. This prison staff intrusion, however brief, immediately causes tension in the classroom. Under the watchful eye of the guard, the students’ behaviors immediately change. I was surprised to find that I was also at fault.
During classes, it’s not all about rules. The prison administration is constantly adhering to rules, but workshops are a place for dialogue between the instructor and the inmate.
I was surprised to see how difficult it is for inmates to feel free enough to be creative. Prisons are institutions that keep people infantile. Because of that, when they are not under supervision, some inmates feel lost. Without a model, some do not think they can be creative. As a result, I got a lot of requests for specific instructions. But behind this request for “a specific structure,” many of them simply wanted my words of support and my approval.
PI. Have you noticed recurring themes in the inmates’ creative works?¶
NG. Nature. Many of them represented scenery and flowers. None of them depicted the prison per se; they always represented the world outside. There was a real contrast between the image of violence surrounding them and the sensitivity of their creations, the simplicity of their drawings. The only works related to the prison and the issue of detention were created for a contest on the theme of “beyond these walls”. The rest of the time, they work on assigned themes, often on artistic movements discussed in class, in order to reinforce their theoretical knowledge through practice.
They all rejected the theme on liberty. They find it very hard to believe in liberty in their situation of constraints and detention. As they explained to me: “We can’t create works on liberty. There is no such thing as liberty.”