Art Behind Bars

– by Rebecca Westlund

I recently took the opportunity to view artworks with real cultural significance to Western Australia, though they are somehow largely unknown even to residents of Perth. This artwork resides not only within, but literally on the walls of the historic Fremantle Prison, closed since 1991 after 136 years of operation. Having recently become aware of an ancestor who came to Australia as a convict in 1852 and worked on the building of the prison I was excited by the chance to attend a prison tour, and an art based one none the less.

The first works on the prison walls date back to 1860, a single cell of convict art by James Walsh. There is no knowledge of whether or not Walsh was allowed to draw on his cell walls and it wasn’t until 1964 when an accident chipped a piece of lime render off a wall of a cell being used as a storeroom that these drawings were re-discovered. Slowly the prison began to introduce education and leisure activities and it was within these that the art program was started in the 1970’s. By the 1980s select prisoners were given permission to create works within the walls of their cells as a behaviour management initiative.

As the prison reached the end of its years in 1990 and 1991 many more prisoners within the art program began to paint murals of the walls of the yards as well as their cells. Due to these outdoor murals being exposed to weather conditions over the years they are slowly deteriorating and sadly it will not be long before they are gone altogether. While there are many photographs of the pieces available, the effect is not the same as seeing the grand scale pieces themselves. Some works within cells are too in the process of preservation, and I am hopeful that this preservation effort will continue.

It was not only the art I saw within the walls of the prison that I found to be intriguing but also our vibrant and knowledgable guide, Sarah. It was a pleasure to attend a historical tour where the guide themselves are captivated and feel magic within the works they are describing for you. Sarah provided us with not only descriptions of the works but also an entire context to the works creation including the prison history of the time each piece was made and an in depth explanation of each prisoner artist.

It was this which created a vivid and exciting tour, and at the end I felt I had truly experienced the art of Fremantle prison past the point of its aesthetic appeal alone. At the end of the tour each participant was given a full colour printed book of prison artworks including history and photographs, this being a new addition in the last 6 months of the tour.

It is a shame that these tours are only operated once a month within the Fremantle prison, due to low interest and knowledge about their existence. I for one am happy that I came across such a tour and encourage both tourists and Perth residents who have any interest in history or art to attend. Tours are limited to 12 participants due to the small size of the cells containing artworks, and I hope that with increased attendance these tours may become a weekly occurrence. For more information please visit www.fremantleprison.com.au.

OPENING HOURS: The first Saturday of each month

LOCATION: 1 The Terrace, Fremantle

Photo credit: Fremantle Prison

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