Ahead of her debut solo show at Lima Zulu this Thursday, Hate speaks to Erika, the artist behind the Postcards from Prison series. Erika made 1400 postcards during her stay at Holloway Women’s Prison, recording her daily activities and the prison surroundings.
During Frieze - an annual gathering of the artworld ‘elite’ - it is important to remember that art is not just for consumption by the rich. Erika’s work reminds us of the therapeutic benefits of art, how essential an outlet it can be for a person’s mental health, and how vital it remains accessible and inclusive for all.
How did art help you through the experience?
I decided to start doing these postcards before I went to prison because being on bail was so traumatic. You just don’t know what’s going to happen, your whole life’s on suspension. About halfway through bail they said to me, ‘you’re going to prison, you’re not going to get away with this, forget about the two years suspended sentence - that’s not going to happen’. So I thought, ‘I’ve got three months now to pack my life up’, so I started recording on the little postcards. Firstly it was my emotions because I was incapacitated and I needed to get stuff out of my system. I documented all of my packing up and realistically when it came to being in prison it turned into, ‘I’m gonna document this story’, because not everybody gets a chance to go and see what it’s like behind bars, your freedom taken away from you, you’ve got to live in this regime. I think [art is] really important.
I took a bundle of postcards in with me and then I got people to send them in. I had 2,000 blank postcards and I thought I’d put them to good use. Occasionally you’ll find that they’re on different paper because I ran out, but it was like a constant. The fact that I was recording this, it made me think about what had happened each day, it made me think about how I was feeling. You might say that’s being hyper-conscious of yourself, but it also enabled me to record the surroundings I was in because you’re not allowed to take photographs, you’re never going to be able to see it for real, you can see pictures of it now with Reclaim Holloway now it’s empty but that’s like looking at a skeleton of someone, you don’t know what they were like. The postcards were a really good thing for me to keep doing and all I needed was a pencil and these little bits of paper because at the beginning I didn’t have anything.
Do the prison services understand that art is really beneficial for people?
I think they do, there were even some art therapy classes for people who really needed that sort of thing, and they did have art up on the walls in the corridors so they were aware that is was good. Towards the end they closed the textiles. I mean, why close it? Textiles is a really valuable skill for people to learn how to make their own stuff. We found out they weren’t going to replace it before the closure of the prison. The government is so set on people getting their Level 1 and Level 2 English and Maths, the basic core things, that it’s so easy to ditch the art because they don’t see the future value in it. Where’s the employability in it? Obviously there is, but not to them, and by the time it filters down to the actual prisoners they’ve got no say. I went to a Prisons Education Trust meeting recently and they were asking if they should continue to give arts materials to people and we unanimously said yes, but not necessarily in the way they are currently doing so, maybe they could have starter packs. Every day drags, days outside go so quickly but in there a day can feel like two days easily.
Did other people take interest in your postcards?
They loved it if they were on it, and then they’d go, ‘oh, you can draw, can you draw this photo of my son?’ The photographs would be about 2 inches and they’d want a sketch of their loved one, so I became a drawing service and they said they’d get me something off the canteen. I hear stories from the men and they say drawing is a currency in the male establishment.
Would you ever find that some days you wouldn’t want to draw?
Yeah. I did a postcard every day and some days I didn’t want to do it and even when I look back at them now I can tell my off days because the drawing was shit. Occasionally I’d wake up the next morning and go, ‘damn, I forgot to do it!’ So I’d have to do it first thing in the morning. I used to write on the back of them as well and they took about 20-30 minutes each with the writing, so I didn’t want to stack them up. But also, you forget really easily what you’ve done because it’s so mundane and so repetitive and so boring.
How did you get materials?
You can scavenge pens here and there, when you first get in there you have nothing but slowly, slowly you acquire a few pens and some cheap paper from the canteen so you accumulate stuff. I remember I bought some coloured pencils and I was quite excited but when I got them they were completely shit, they didn’t have any colour in them. It was quite a long time, over a year, before I got any paints and I got given them by somebody who was leaving which was very nice of them. That really kickstarted me being able to do something. I did do collage, that was my artistic getout for not having anything else to do but pencil. My mum would get me the Sunday paper, and so every Sunday I would immediately tear all the pictures out of it and then think, ‘oh shit, I should have read that’. I would make loads of cards and send them to people, it’s nice to send somebody something that you’ve made rather than something random from the canteen. You could buy a glue stick for 69p, so that was my art material.
How accessible were creative services in prison?
You had to put your name down for what you wanted to do, and when that became available you’d get put on the education list for morning or afternoon session. They had cookery there as well, and a craft class. Sometimes it would take a long time to get into the class because it was full, so you might miss weeks and have to wait. The textiles place did have fabric, once it took me an entire 2 and a half hour session to look through all the fabric to see if there was any I would possibly want to make a top out of. I was very fussy, I kept holding them up thinking, ‘you’re never going to wear that’. I still hold the top up and think, ‘I’ll probably never wear that’.
What was it like to be inside Holloway?
Holloway had a really bad name but it wasn’t as awful as I thought it would be. Once I got into the regime and found my feet and found what I could do to keep myself occupied and stimulate myself creatively that was ok, I had my little escapism. I think having somewhere to escape is really important. People think prison’s terrible, and a lot of it is, especially for men I think. Also, I live in Holloway, so it’s this thing that’s been on my doorstep which I used to cycle past thinking, ‘I don’t want to go in there’. And then I got to see it, and in some funny way - don’t get me wrong, I’d rather not have gone, but if I’m gonna go I’m sort of glad I got to see it for what it is, or for what it was before they closed it. Whenever anybody talks about Holloway it’s always the serious cases and the most high-profile cases but thousands and thousands of women went through there, often repeatedly. For some people it was like their second home, they’d bump into people they knew before, people they knew from outside, they were in a cycle of drug taking and getting sent down for short periods, or shoplifting, it became a refuge for them in a way. It wasn’t all horrible, but it was horrible as well, I don’t ever want to share a room again. Ever. That was really scarring.
Can you tell us a bit about your work with Koestler?
When you are halfway through your sentence you’re eligible for ROTL (Release On Temporary License) where you can go and work at a charity shop or something similar on a daily basis, then you just go back to the prison every night. Leaving from Holloway was great, you’re in the middle of town, and I managed to persuade them to let me buy a bike so I could cycle to my work because it was in West London. I used to cycle out of the prison and along the canal every day to go to work at Koestler, which is an outside charity. They run an annual prison art competition for prisons across the whole country. Every April you can enter the stuff you’ve made the last year, they have 52 different categories like writing, music, poetry, screenplay, then crafts, sculpture, woodwork, painting, drawing, pastels. They have 7,000 entries per year and this is something you can enter whether you’ve been to an art class or not. There’s an award scheme that you can enter up to 5 pieces in and they have financial prizes and awards and then there’s an show (I’m Still Here) at the Southbank Centre every year. It’s on right now, you can go until early November and I’ve got two bits of work in there.
Working there you really get to see what an impact doing art or writing within the prison system has, the amount of entries, loads of work that comes from people sitting in their rooms making stuff made from cardboard, mixed media, whatever they can get a hold of. You get stuff that people have made out of bread, like they squashed the bread so it goes hard like clay or playdough, it’s quite brittle and they have to be kept in plastic boxes so the mice don’t eat them.
Were you in Holloway as it was closing?
Yeah, I was there early 2014 and it closed in 2016, so by the time it got announced to be closed I’d started going out to work.
What was it like working with Reclaim Holloway?
From Reclaim Holloway I’ve learned a lot about what the public thinks and feels about the place, and I’ve got involved with the women’s building. I promote the women’s building really, and they’ve got my drawing of it in the Islington Museum in an exhibition called Echoes of Holloway, it closes on the 6th October and has lots of the history of Holloway. They tried to make it not so sensationalist and a bit more real, they’ve got my J-Cloth plaited bag in there that I made because I was so used to having a bag to carry round I was like, ‘I can’t carry my swimming costume like this’, so I plaited all these ripped up J-Cloths together and made a tote bag out of it and they were like, ‘you can’t use that it’s not see-through’. I then learnt that if I went to the early morning gym to go swimming then I avoided where you had to walk past all the officers and didn’t get seen.
Is there anything you would like people to know about the prison system for women?
It’s difficult because more women being childcarers, that’s the main big thing. A lot of women are in prison because of men which is a big thing, and the women’s centre at Reclaim Holloway that we were talking about is supposed to be seen as more of a preventionist thing to stop people getting into a situation where they would end up committing offences. There’s such a big stigma about prison if people find out that’s where you’ve been. Society hasn’t got round to the idea that it’s supposed to be rehabilitation, giving people second chances and educating them while they’re in prison, but then they come out and we’re still punishing them, they’re punished for the rest of their lives for having a sentence. If women have kids and then they can’t get housing for various reasons and you need employment and you’ve got to tick boxes that say you’ve got an offence it makes it so much harder to get a job, or insurance is so much more expensive. It’s like you’re not trustful anymore.
We should morally act in a certain way, but the problem with the prison system is so much of it is privatised out that it’s a money making thing. Yes, it does cost the government to keep somebody, but there’s some company out there that’s running the prison, it’s not the government they’re paying a private company to have them locked up for you. I’m not quite abolitionist, I don’t think you should have no prisons because I think there are some things people do that you need that sort of punishment or something else, though I’m not sure what is the right thing. There should be more community based sentences where people are working in the voluntary sector. People lose their homes and then they can’t get housing when they get out and they’ve got to live in hostels. It costs the government a fortune and it’s not the best way of dealing with offences.
What are your goals with showing the postcards this Thursday?
I want to start exhibiting them because otherwise they’re just going to sit in a box, and to start raising some awareness. The more I can get them out there the better, I think this will give people a chance to see something they haven’t seen yet, and hopefully just raise some discussion around some of the issues that it brings up, like mental health, depression, a lot of self harm. A couple of times there was a lock down when somebody cut themselves and there was blood all over the cell.
Sometimes when I look at the postcards I look so happy, but that’s because I’m trying to pick out the best thing of the day not the worst - you have to try and look up a little bit. I want them to document a story but I do want it to show a real side to prison as well, let’s hope it raises some awareness and brings up some topics of conversation that actually results in some improvements in the whole system. That would be the best way forward I think.
Lima Zulu: Unit 15, Orion Business Center, SE14 5RT
Nearest stations: Surrey Quays/South Bermondsey
Visit by appointment until 14th October