Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Ibague Prison Graffiti Project

Graffiti is probably the most populous of art forms (barring perhaps blogs), and prisons are extreme environments, populated by people who are to greater or lesser degrees troubled, persecuted, destructive, mentally ill or victimized by society.

So, prison graffiti is likely to be pretty interesting.

When Ibague's 120-year-old prison was shut down and replaced by a modern one in 2003, Bogotá photographer Diego Samper realized that history was happening. He was the only photographer allowed into the emptied prison before the building was transformed into a cultural center, part of the renovation of central Ibague. Besides the prison's great age and its history of housing guerillas and other tough guys, it also had an architectural importance: its panoptic design - which permits prison guards to observe inmates without being seen themselves - was not only novel architecture for Latin America, but also carries a sort of Orwellian symbolism applicable to our present age. Anglo-Canadian artist Jamie Griffiths helped Samper turn his photographs into a sort of documentary, which won honors at the recent Bogotá International Film Festival.
The Ibague prison, modeled after one is Suffolk,
England, enables guards to observe all the prisoners
from a central spot.

The film and some 30 accompanying photographs is to be shown in Bogotá's Museum of Modern Art beginning March 15.

The art "reveals a rich visual universe of prison art and, through it, aspects of contemporary Colombian social and political reality," says Griffith's website. "But beyond that, it reflects on the principle of freedom. Is the Panopticon imprisoning freedom itself?"

Griffiths, who teaches art courses in two Canadian universities, told me that the prisoners' graffiti is often childlike, illustrating horses, religious images and soft porn.

"It's a window into the psychology of the prisoners," she said.
Somebody's watching you.
An Ibague prison graffiti eye.
(Photo: DiegoSamper.com)

And lots displays real talent, as you can see here.

But she also finds a broader sumbolism in the prison's design as surveillance of our everyday lives has increased post-9-11. Today, her native London, with police video cameras on many corners, is often called the most-surveilled city in the world.

Back then, "prisoners were under surveillance," she said. "Today, everyone is under surveillance."

A hallway in Bogotá's National
Museum, which was originally
a prison.
But, significanly, we can often look back at those observing us.

A hole between floors in Bogotá's
National Museum enabled
guards to watch inmates above
and below them.
It might be more appropriate to hold the exhibit in Bogotá's National Museum, which itself was built to be a prison on the panoptic design. Museum visitors can still see the holes between floors and long straight halls which enabled guards in the center to observe prisoners in all directions.

Ibague prison graffiti
(Photo: DiegoSamper.com)
A dedicated multitasker, Griffiths is now heading off to Colombia's Amazon to do work with Samper on a film about the unity of life, a theme she ties to her interest in quantum physics. But Griffiths will also use the trip to test out a solar power outfit (if her lost luggage finds its way here from Canada - which it finally did).

"I can go weeks without plugging my (equipment) in," she said.

And she's even studying 'plant intelligence' - altho she didn't bring her floral lie detector for fear of customs complications.

That may sound strange, but Griffiths explains that plants have been shown to express stress in the presence of someone who killed another plant in its presence.

See photos on the Ibague prison's Facebook page.

By Mike Ceaser, of Bogotá Bike Tours, which offers graffiti tours.

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