Phoenix Zululand:


Restorative Justice Programme

Archive for the ‘Art Therapist’ Category

Family Conferences are happening continually

Monday, March 5th, 2012

Lamo Jama and Deuty Drector Nathi Shandu facilitated an extraordinarily original Family Conference last week.


Lamo – together with a Phoenix visiting artist, Annemarie Beukes – introduced the Conference by asking inmates to speak to the attending families about self-portraiture they had accomplished in the preceding weeks. It proved to be a wonderful way to get things going. Each man, as he spoke about his own artistic work, revealed things about his own past and the way he had come to think of himself, his vulnerabilities and the way he now sees unfolding opportunities, in the present and after parole. As several said, they had never tried to do anything artistic before, and this exercise served as a superb metaphor to help them understand the largest of all possible projects: the revision of their own lives in relation to their families.

It was very noticeable to Phoenix Facilitators how much members of families responded to an evidently new kind of emotional expression and way of speaking from their imprisoned members of their families. The value of this lies in our being able to show that prisoners are capable of extending ideas of what it is to find a way back to family and society after prison. It is far more that merely expressions of contrition – it goes into what it is for an ex-prisoner to be once more a creative contributor to the collective health of the communiity of family and friends.


Well done Lamo; we were all deeply moved.

The beginning of a a Family Conference: who am I?

A man speaks about how he thinks about himself as he explains his own self-portrait.

As usual, the families gathered for a group photograph after this emtional event during which we felt there had been palpable reconciliation between inmates and their families.

Families gather for a photograph before a few tears and sad goodbyes. But there was elation at the prospect of parole in the not too distant future.


As always at our Family Conferences, the Phoenix was there: a referential touchstone for all present:

Arise, once more, brightness in our lives.

[Refer to the next post.]

Nathi Shandu and Lamo Jama at the Family Conference

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.


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

Stephanie McKee: her special study for SIT

Tuesday, January 17th, 2012

Institutionalized: the art of Zululand’s prisoners

Stephanie wrote an outstanding analysis of prisoner art in her paper for School for International Training during 2011. The paper gives special attention to the way technical aspects to artistic creativity have been used to yield complex thinking about the lived predicaments prisoners find themselves in.

The paper also is rich in that it gives a large number of examples illustrative of the points she makes.

Read her paper at:


Lamo Jama and Stephanie McKee working with a prison group

Lamo Jama and Stephanie McKee working together with a prison group

The return of the Phoenix Art Therapist is keenly awaited

Sunday, January 15th, 2012

Magdalena Nothaft will return in early 2012. She resides for most of the year in Germany, but conducts intensive programmes with Phoenix Facilitators and prison groups twice each year.

The photographs show Facilitators working on “Colour Dialogue” sessions under the able facilitation of Magdalena.

Magdalena working with a prison group of both men and women together



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