Phoenix Zululand:


Restorative Justice Programme

Archive for February, 2012

The Phoenix

Sunday, February 12th, 2012

The Phoenix: a painting done by a long-term prisoner who was deeply inspired by his experience of the Programme. The painting is large, and is executed on A2 paper.


The name of the Programme has been unexpectedly and triumphantly apposite in the nine years that the organization has worked in Zululand’s prisons. The ancient  myth of the beautiful bird that immolates itself and then rises  from the ashes has been told again and again in the prison programmes, in a thousand different contexts. It has been thoroughly appropriated in the telling of so many life-stories. It has been drawn, painted, and modelled in clay. In Family Conferences, it has very often become the mythic template by which families mould their own specific narratives.

This widespread public resonance with the myth may have several explanations. The most intriguing suggests that this ancient story, alien in cultural provenance, is potent beyond its thematic relevance. The story “speaks” to people about the universality of their predicaments in falling foul of the local law, resulting in incarceration. In other words, it is the fact of the myth deriving from a different age and culture that gives it its local symbolic power: if you come to understand that the story of your messed-up life is foreshadowed by the criminal actions and pedicaments of others in different cultures down the ages, in a significant way the burden of culpability and guilt is ameliorated, and you can set your mind upon a putative resurrection from the ashes of your life.

Those who name their programmes of social action by reference to the local vernacular (in the laudable pursuit of being “relevant”) miss this vital point. The name of a social programme should, in our view, suggest the universal human connections within the social and individual problems with which we all try to grapple. To be imprisoned with a total loss of liberty  is a catastrophe for the human spirit, and this desolation should be connected to the unfolding human drama through all ages that prizes freedom above all other values.

For us, the Phoenix continues to be a wonderful symbol.



An iconic drawing is displayed at the Phoenix Gallery

Sunday, February 12th, 2012


Some of the Programme’s most forceful examples of prisoners struggling with their futures are astonishingly articulate in artistic terms about the hurdles lying ahead in the future. The task of rebuilding self-image under the immense force of social obloquy is brilliantly grasped in the following picture.

The "empty" prison cell

The sparseness of the cell reflects emotional desolation and the apparent impossibility of finding a creative way back to society after prison. The drawing’s most poignant thought occurs in the image in the mirror. The idea here was by no means fully formed in a verbally explicit way at the time of its frst display. It was when the drawing became a catalytic opportunity for discussion within the group that both artist and others started to grasp what had been drawn.  “Before you present yourself to the mirror”, said the artist in statements that came finally to be formed under the influence of the social commentary, “it has a predetermined idea of who you are, and you feel that you will be forever trapped in your own denigrating self-image”. “The mirror is society”, echoed the group, “ever present in your prison cell”. “There is nothing to look at that might help you to think differently”.

The ascription of a denigrating intention to a mirror on the wall is psychologically astute.

The gated door: the door made for me

Saturday, February 11th, 2012

The gated door: this drawing has been in the Gallery for a few years.

The drawing is elliptic and puzzling. The effect on the group in which it was produced was dynamic and resulted in new levels of self-expression amongst all the participants – this social effect of art within the prison group is the key to its stature, as in so many other examples of prison art. The drawing started to yield its burden of thought slowly in the prison group in which it was done, evoking considerable interpretative intensity along the way over several days. The artist himself, inarticulate in verbal, discursive ways and frequently prone to violence, seemed at times puzzled by his own drawings. A consensus in the discussion emerged in the group, to which the artist himself finally subscribed – this became its “meaning”:

“I come to a gated door. That door is made only for me and it is there to block my way forever and there is no hope. No hope – until I learn to call forth from within me all the power I have left. Then, as I stand before that iron gate, the cold iron starts to dissolve, and for the first time, I think I can walk through those bars. I hope I can take the first step into my resurrected life.”

 The metaphor of the force of personality making iron dissolve seems to offer a paradox: “we are the damned forever”, or “we could embody undiminished hope”. The intensity of the paradox provides the drawing with its interpretative energy. One can look at the picture and decide that the bars are newly forming to jail the subject in perpetuity, or, at another moment, one might decide they are beginning to dissolve. It is the conditionality of the latter perception, given the immensely disabling circumstances of imprisonment in the mental frameworks of people, that stands ready to cast a deep pall of pessimism over the way one might view this drawing.  Yet, in the art group in which if took its social meaning, the participants saw its key to lie in hope.


All the world’s a prison …………

Friday, February 10th, 2012

"Prison and home: across the street from each other"

[Click on the drawing to download a larger picture on your computer.]

Phoenix programmes, particularly those such as Conversations in Families” & “Family Conferencing”, are routinely showing that the ways in which prisoners think about their homes are critical to the making of an emotional and practical flexibility in all members of their families; this flexibility will make a considerable difference to whether or not  social reintegration happens after prison. It is often characteristic for prisoners to suffer severe amnesia about social identity with respect their own homes. Families also begin to forget that they have members incarcerated.

In this drawing, prison and home are shown to be similar institutions, merely “across the street from each other”. The idiom by which both are depicted is the same in each case. The perimeter fence of the prison and the forbidding enclosure of the home are homologous.

 How are we to tease out the thinking embedded in this drawing?

Perhaps it is this: after a while, prison ensures that the creative imagination collapses and the idea of liberty has no positive use in the minds of most prisoners. One is reminded of the creeping infection of the prison outlook, and perhaps of the kind of attitude exemplified in Hamlet:

What have you, my good friends, deserv’d at the hands of
Fortune, that she sends you to prison hither?

Prison, my lord?

Denmark’s a prison.

Then is the world one.

A goodly one, in which there are many confines, wards, and
dungeons, Denmark being one o’ th’ worst.

We think not so, my lord.

Why then ’tis none to you; for there is nothing either good or
bad, but thinking makes it so. To me it is a prison.

In prison, one learns that the world is a hostile place, and the prison fabricates in mental outlook a desolating emptiness, which assimilates to itself  ideas of home and communty.  This ensures for many that a return to prison on subsequent criminal charges is inevitable – “the world is nothing to you, and you are nothing to the world”. That is the reality of recidivism.

The idea of “rehabilitation” or ”corrections” has been universally shown to be one of societies’ grandest yet most absurd beliefs.


Amy Leo is working on the Phoenix Gallery

Friday, February 10th, 2012

Amy is modifyng the permanent display. New themes are being introduced, and new ways of displaying some extraordinary works of art.

We are choosing for display mainly art that has featured in papers and conference presentations.

Amy Leo at work in the Phoenix Gallery

Nonceba and Nathi presented a paper at the ISS conference at the end of 2011

Sunday, February 5th, 2012

Nonceba (Director) and Nathi (Deputy Director) presented a paper at the ISS conference at the end of 2011.

They regard this as work in progress and are preparing it for publication. They welcome comments. Please contact them directly, or through the link on this web site.

Download the paper as a PDF document by clicking on the link below.


Nonceba Lushaba:

Nkosinathi Shandu:


Link to the paper:

Paper for ISS Conference _2_



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