Ai Weiwei organizes FREEDOM, an art exhibition created by prisoners.

Portrait Ai Weiwei Ai Weiwei Studio

Koestler Arts has announced that its fifteenth annual UK exhibition in partnership with the Southbank Center in October will be curated by Chinese contemporary artist, documentary filmmaker and activist Ai Weiwei. 2022 marks the 60e anniversary of the Koestler and Ai Weiwei prizes wants this landmark exhibition to be “the most ambitious to date”.

The vision for the exhibition is inspired by the artist’s visit to the Koestler Arts building, which currently houses more than 6,500 works of art entered in this year’s awards. Surprised by the quantity of works and the range of categories exhibited, Ai Weiwei’s concept evolved; be as inclusive as possible and let the artwork show how humanity reacts when placed in extreme circumstances.

This year, the Southbank Center exhibition space will be physically transformed to bring this vision to life, which will help preserve the environment in which the works are made. The goal is not to “translate” the work but to preserve its integrity. Ai Weiwei explained this idea with an analogy: he wants to present the forest, not just a branch that comes from it.

During his curatorial period, the artist also visited HM Prison Wormwood Scrubs, which is located next to the Koestler Arts Centre. Having visited many prisons around the world, as well as his own restriction of freedom during a period of secret detention and constant surveillance in China, this additional visit to HMP Wormwood Scrubs helped to reinforce and confirm the vision of the exhibition .

Despite the severe ripple effects Covid has had on prisons, which are only now beginning to return to ‘normal’, nearly 3,000 artists worked to create artwork for this year’s Koestler Awards. These figures reinforce the motivation behind this year’s exhibition.

Reflecting the philosophy of Koestler Arts, Ai Weiwei wrote,

expressing oneself is part of being human. To be voiceless is to be told that you are not an actor in society; ultimately it’s a denial of humanity

The exhibition will feature artwork created and submitted for the 2022 Koestler Awards by individuals in prisons, secure mental health facilities, immigration removal centers, juvenile facilities and on community sentences at across the UK. The exhibition will be presented to the public by former inmate exhibition hosts who have received specialized training to lead tours, answer questions and share their first-hand experience of the importance of art and creativity to people in the criminal justice system.

This exhibition focuses on the role played by the act of thinking and creating in life under constraints. Notable works of art and literature in history were created when the artist was restrained, oppressed and challenged, rather than completely free. The language and feelings that emerged from these conditions are much deeper, compelling and powerful.

I have visited different prisons in the UK and seen the living conditions of different types of prisoners. I hope this exhibition can inspire people to reflect on the loss of freedom and those who continue to create art to fight for space in life and freedom of expression despite adversity.

Ai Weiwei

Koestler Arts could not be more delighted to welcome Ai Weiwei as curator of our 60e Anniversary exhibition. Our attendees have often asked if he could curate for us, and Ai Weiwei’s vision for the exhibition couldn’t be a more fitting way to celebrate our artists and our work this year. ‘Freedom’ will be a very different and powerful Koestler Arts exhibition.

Sally Taylor, Managing Director of Koestler Arts

FREEDOM October 27 – December 18, 2022 Southbank Center Exhibition space, level 1, Royal Festival Hall

About the artist

Ai Weiwei is renowned for his strong aesthetic statements that resonate with topical phenomena in today’s geopolitical world. From architecture to installations, social media to documentaries, Ai uses a wide range of mediums as expressions of new ways for her audience to examine society and its values. Recent exhibits include: Ai Weiwei: Resetting Memories at MARCO in Monterrey, Ai Weiwei: The Naked Life at the Mildred Lane Kemper Museum in Saint-Louis, Ai Weiwei at K20/K21 in Düsseldorf, and Good Fences Make Good Neighbors with the Public Art Fund in New York.

Ai was born in Beijing in 1957 and currently lives and works in Berlin. Ai is the recipient of the 2015 Ambassador of Conscience Award from Amnesty International and the 2012 Václav Havel Award for Creative Dissent from the Human Rights Foundation.

About Koestler Arts

Koestler Arts (formerly Koestler Trust) is the UK’s best-known prison arts charity. Koestler Arts encourages people in the criminal justice system to express themselves creatively and learn new skills by participating in the annual Koestler Awards. Koestler prices are simple and powerful. They motivate more than 2,500 people across the UK criminal justice system each year to participate in the arts and show the public their talent and contribution to society.

Each year, Koestler Arts receives more than 6,000 entries, in 52 creative categories. Participants receive feedback and certificates, can be selected for public exhibitions or mentorship, and can sell their visual works. Koestler Arts organizes an annual program of exhibitions and events across the UK. The biggest is the annual exhibition at London’s Southbank Centre, which attracts around 20,000 people.

Former curators have included Antony Gormley, Benjamin Zephaniah, Speech Debelle, Camille Walala, Sarah Lucas, Grayson Perry, families of prisoners, victims of crime, female prisoners and graduates of the Koestler Arts mentorship program. | @koestlerarts


  • Art News London

Key words


Marc Westall

Mark Westall is the founder and editor of FAD magazine, founder and co-editor of Art of Conversation and founder of the @worldoffad platform

Comments are closed.