The art of crime

By Liang Chen Source:Global Times Published: 2013-11-26 20:13:01

Prisoners receive psychological counseling in a prison in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province in July, 2012. Photo: CFP

Prisoners receive psychological counseling in a prison in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province in July, 2012. Photo: CFP

Late last month an exhibition of 400 paintings was unveiled at China Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. But none of the 13 artists involved attended. Their photos were pixelated and their personal information was concealed.

Despite the mysterious nature of the exhibition, or perhaps because of it, the project garnered significant public attention. After all, not much art is created by convicts still serving time.

The pictures were the result of a project which aims to reform prisoners through the use of art therapy.

All the participants, prisoners with the Qinghe branch of the Beijing Municipal Prison Administration, were new to the art world, having never drawn pictures before.

The prisoners had been selected to take part in a four-month training program on painting, as part of a new initiative which involved artists, psychological consultants as well as social workers.

 "Art can heal people. People who have been afflicted by trauma or tortured by grudges and hatred can get relief through painting if they are properly guided," Yezi, a tutor in the project and graduate student at the sculpture department of China Central Academy of Fine Arts, told the Global Times.

As a form of psychotherapy, art therapy aims to assist people in expressing their feelings.

"We want to boost the prisoners' self-esteem. If they lack confidence, we should help them rebuild their sense of self worth," Yang Chang, warden of the Qinghe prison, who is in charge of the project, told the Global Times.

"Prisoners are more defensive than ordinary people. We use art to open their hearts and build trust in us and in the world," Song Zaobei, a social worker participating in the project, told the Global Times.

Tough crowd

The project coincided with the prison's desire to introduce new programs to rehabilitate inmates.

 "We cooperated with Peking University to carry out a survey that showed that a majority of the prisoners have a variety of personality disorders. They committed crimes due to mental problems, such as an inability to face frustration or inability to properly communicate with others," Yang told the Global Times.

Yang said after they took training courses, a majority of the prisoners, who used to be short-tempered, were more stable. However, both Yang and Yezi admitted that it remains difficult to quantify the influence of the art therapy on prisoners.

Although it originated in the mid-20th century in English-speaking countries and Europe, art therapy is new to China. Several prisons have adopted the treatment, such as the Hunan Women's Prison.

In 2008, Zhan Lan, the deputy head of the Hunan prison, began working with a professional art therapist team, including members from the Hunan Fine Arts Association. Since then, the program has treated six batches of prisoners. Advocates say the program has been a huge success, as participants had a lower rate of recidivism after accepting the training.

But the program isn't without problems. There is no systematic training for artists like Yezi who wish to work with prisoners, and there are no guidelines or scientific appraisal systems.

Traditionally, Chinese prisons have used three methods to "correct" the behavior of inmates, according to a report in the Southern Weekly. Education, labor and "prison management," which is a catchall phrase that describes incentives and punishments meted out to prisoners.

In recent years, psychological counseling has also made inroads into the prison system.

When measured against other forms of rehabilitation, art therapy has its benefits. It is not as controversial as the prison labor system, which has drawn fire for corruption and dubious outcomes.

A study conducted by Yunnan University researchers indicated that part of the problem is the fact that prisons are under-funded, so they use labor as a means of profit rather than rehabilitation.

Others also point the finger at the attitude of the Chinese penal system. "Instead of focusing on correcting the behaviors, Chinese prisons focus on imprisonment. Convicts are often demonized and the methods of treatment are often inhumane," an anonymous lawyer wrote on legal website

Secret students

"We signed a confidential contract with the Beijing prison. We cannot reveal any personal information about these painters," Yezi told the Global Times.

But she did outline the requirements that were placed on participants. No sharp objects were allowed in the classroom and students were not permitted to communicate with teachers after class. Objects were not permitted to be passed around, and students could not reveal details of the prison.

The prison selected the participants, all of whom came from different educational backgrounds and were of different ages. Eight were HIV carriers and five had committed other offenses while in prison.

The students gathered in a sunny room twice a week. Music was played to relax them and they enjoyed the privilege of not having to do labor during this period.

Yezi said that the key was establishing trust with the convicts.

"They will only reveal their true thoughts and emotions when they trust you, and don't feel they need to be defensive," she said. They have to master their emotions through painting."

The first step was dispelling fears. "Even though I have studied painting for 13 years, I feel embarrassed and stressed if I have to draw pictures in front of people," Yezi said.

Students were taught to draw circles on their first day, of whatever shape or color they liked, in an effort to establish confidence in drawing.

"We never set up any standards for aesthetics. There are no good or bad pictures. Every picture is good, as long as you draw it," said Song.

"We spent half an hour discussing these drawings every day, but with one key principle: compliments only and no criticism," Yezi said.

In one class, Yezi brought an armful of flowers into the classroom and asked the students to observe the flowers carefully and slowly.

"When you just walk by a flower and have a glimpse of it, you may never find its beauty. But if you stop and observe it for a long time, you can find its beauty. I want to teach them how to discover the beauty in life (through painting)," she said.

Posted in: Society

blog comments powered by Disqus