The exhibition putting a human face on Britain’s prisons

Dean Kelland, Walk a Mile in My Shoes (2022)
Dean Kelland, Walk a Mile in My Shoes (2022) - Dean Kelland

When Britons imagine a prison, it’s often a fantasy made of spite. Too many believe that sentences are pitiably short (they’ve been lengthening, on average, for years), or that each cell is equipped with an Xbox (they’re overcrowded and often foul). HMP Grendon lives up, or down, to those fantasies: a Category B institution in Buckinghamshire, it’s Europe’s only “therapeutic prison”, and has an art school and gallery space.

Dean Kelland has been Grendon’s artist-in-residence since 2019, and Imposter Syndrome – mounted “on the outside”, at Ikon in Birmingham – is the product of that spell. There are films, photos and mixed-media works: all were made in collaboration with inmates, who appear in the films as well. The recurring motif is faces, whether donned as masks by the prisoners – sometimes white and blank, sometimes Bowie in long-haired phase – or cut out and pasted in collaged works.

In the therapeutic lexicon, “masking” is the behaviour with which we cover our private pain. Here, it’s also a legal convenience, to hide the prisoners’ faces for their sake and – Kelland stresses – their victims’ too. (He didn’t ask the inmates what they’d been imprisoned for.) In one video, So the Days Float Through My Eyes (2023), 12 men in Bowie masks hold up lyrics from Changes: “Just gonna have to be a different man…” In another, Walk a Mile in My Shoes (2022), an Elvis-masked figure lumbers along through Grendon’s halls, then does a quick signature Presley dance.

Dean Kelland, Sketchbook image (2023)
Dean Kelland, Sketchbook image (2023) - Dean Kelland

For the series Tin Soldier (2023), pages from Hans Christian Andersen have been blown up, colour-washed, overdrawn with cell-like grids, and studded with faces of men the inmates find “challenging or flawed”, from Boy George to Bob Mortimer. Here, I began to waver: the meeting of muted paint and cartoonish heads isn’t dynamic, just inert – Pop Art with low energy. (Downstairs, there’s a show of abstract paintings by Mali Morris that thrum with circles and lines – a related inquiry, less direct but artistically sharper, into enclosing, and feeling, space.)

At first, Kelland’s point seemed obvious. The inmates are suspicious of masculinity, and want to unpick its cultural force. But gradually my opinion changed, as the ocean of faces became insistent. We look to them for familiarity, for reassurance: to see them cut up, floating, repeated, is deeply unsettling. Whether trying on fame or emptiness, these prisoners – deprived, remember, of most social rights – are digging at the roots of personhood, and how rootlessness threatens us all.

In the light of Britain’s contempt for prisoners, Grendon is a politically heroic place. It also, inevitably, works: its inmates’ rate of recidivism is drastically reduced. Imposter Syndrome may be imperfect, but – much better – it’s a serious, sincere show.

Until December 22. Info: