Marieke Kruger's 'Truth-Teller-&-Offender-II' can be seen at the 'Identity' exhibition
Marieke Kruger's 'Truth-Teller-&-Offender-II' can be seen at the 'Identity' exhibition
Image: Supplied

Art has become a crucial component of his life behind bars and he snatches time whenever possible to sate his creative passion.

Since the age of 14, Buys has clashed with the law. From knocking heads with the security forces during apartheid, to doing hard time for petty crime and murder, he has bounced between reformatories and high-security facilities.

As a remnant of the ''lost generation" of post-apartheid South Africa, he regrets having forfeited the opportunity to have a formal education - but fast forward 41 years and he finds himself as an art student at the age of 55, making up for lost time.

Joseph Buys, an inmate at Drakenstein Correctional Services in Paarl (formerly Victor Verster Prison) with two of his etchings that can be seen at the 'Identity' exhibition in Cape Town
Joseph Buys, an inmate at Drakenstein Correctional Services in Paarl (formerly Victor Verster Prison) with two of his etchings that can be seen at the 'Identity' exhibition in Cape Town
Image: Alison Foat

Buys credits visual artist Marieke Kruger for his personal transformation through art. Kruger started teaching at the prison in 2015, offering workshops in drawing, painting and more complex disciplines such as lino and dry-point etchings. The latter are made using thick, transparent sheets onto which images are scratched with a sharp needle.

After only two years the men in Kruger's class have advanced to such an extent that their work, including the aforementioned disciplines, has reached exhibition status.

Aside from being shown last year at the Sasol Art Museum at Stellenbosch University, their work is now showcased at art.it.is gallery in Salt River, Cape Town. This particular body of work, submitted by 12 prisoner-students, hangs alongside pieces by Kruger herself, as well as Phillip Heenop and Philipp Pieroth.

Entitled Identity, it's a collection made up entirely of self-portraits that explore the relationship between the inner self and incarceration. Many inmates regard drawing a representation of themselves as a way to validate their existence and find the process to be therapeutic.

There is no pressure to create a masterpiece, although there is a desire to excel. In a quiet, safe space, conducive to introspection and devoid of negativity, they are able to transpose, with tremendous effort and perseverance, a reflection of themselves, their very real interpretations of what lies within, and seeing the result elicits a deep emotional response.

Observing the group at art.it.is when they stood before their framed works, Kruger says: "Some weep when seeing their framed art presented in a public space for the first time. To them, art has enabled them to regain their humanity. they feel respected as citizens and as people."

Kruger's positive approach and the consistent support received from Bertie Fourie, the prison's section head for sport, recreation and arts and culture, fuels dedication and a pursuit of excellence.

Kruger is intent on developing talent and achieving high standards so that once back in society, Joseph Buys and his contemporaries can make a living out of their art. A career as a professional artist remains one of the few that is not tainted by a rap sheet.

It has been proved time and again that prisoners who participate in any of the art genres have better self-esteem, are more motivated, disciplined and less prone to violent behaviour.

Concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl, in his book The Art of Manliness, mentions how crucial it is for inmates to have a sense of purpose when trying to survive a "naked existence". For someone who is incarcerated for years on end, having a creative outlet in grim circumstances offers this and provides a goal that in turn gives hope.

When discussing the sketches he made on Robben Island, Nelson Mandela, who spent his last prison years at the Drakenstein Correctional Services prison when it was still known as Victor Verster, said: "I have attempted to colour the island sketches in ways that reflect the positive light in which I view it. Even the most fantastic dreams can be achieved if we are prepared to endure life's challenges."

'Identity' can be seen at art.it.is, 76 Albert Road, Salt River, Cape Town, until April 30.


This article was originally published in The Times.

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