Laurent Quillet and Despina Psymarnou are two visual artists that will share with us the outcomes of an art and storytelling project from the prison of Forest in Brussels. The artworks include portraits made by prisoners sharing their experience of COVID-19 lockdown and four beautiful books with their personal stories in a very innovative way (mostly in French). These two artworks will be launched online during the REstART Festival week.
As explained by Despina and Laurent, the idea of this art project was to invite the participants (prisoners) to create their own portrait, by taking photos of each other, and then, choosing the colors, the clothes, the environment, the objects, and the persons they want to be shown with. Progressively a work of their perception of their identity begun, including their wishes, their fears, their future lives.
Some of the prisoners came with photos of their kids, their wives, or beloved defunded persons and asked the artists to include them in their portrait. All of them had a difficult relationship with their wives, because of the long time passed in prison and the distance between them (some foreign prisoners have not seen their wives for 6-7 years).
This workshop was a way for prisoners to show the loyalty of their emotions and a way to re-establish communication with their roots. For example, one participant has chosen to include in his portrait an animal to represent his loneliness and his egoistical lifestyle (i.e. the wolf).
Later on, Despina and Laurent invited the participants to have for photos without smiling, just a sort of neutral appearance, and confronted them with classic paintings as a way to question our view and our judgment on the noble, humanity, and the beautiful.
In addition to the portraits, four single books were created with their stories. This was a patchwork, with different layers, firstly the photos like a theatrical workshop, after the interviews, and lastly, their opinion of their own portraits. Questions asked were: What do you see? What do you think that this person feels, think, wait for? Their answers are included in the books and became part of their stories.
In meanwhile, the Covid-19 quarantine took place in society and in prison as well, in a very strict and inhuman way. Despina and Laurent decided to continue this art process including the participants' experience during the strict confinement in their portraits.
Laurent and Despina are currently working on this subject in different Belgian prisons with the support of the M-use Belgium and the Foundation for Moral Assistance to Prisoners (FAMD).
“In my daily life, I like to remember moments from the "banal" life that surrounds me. I like to listen to people and save moments in their lives. Thanks to video, photographic or sound recordings, I memorize these moments and then I use them to show that these moments that seem "banal" are not. It’s a way for me to turn the ordinary into the extraordinary. In collaboration with Despina Psymarnou at Forest prison, we were able to establish this listening and this encounter with the other, with these men who came to our workshop. A relationship of trust, sensitivity, and proximity has been established so that everyone feels free to give themselves up to us, to others. What did they want to tell us about themselves? What are they dreaming of? What do they miss the most? Thanks to their words and their wills, we were able to tell their stories through digital montages. In a way, they were virtually removed from their condition of "Prisoners".
Laurent Quillet is a young, visual artist from northern France, and educated at the Academy of Fine Arts in Tournai. Besides his personal work focused on “insignificant aspects of everyday life” he works for M-use Belgium (Foundation Yehudi Menuhin) which is a platform of artists engaged in working with the disadvantaged public.
Despina Psymarnou, originally from Greece, has lived and worked for the last 30 years in Brussels. She studied theater and besides her involvement in the physical theater, puppets, masks, street theater, she is interested in arts projects in prisons (she has been leading theater workshops in various prisons in Belgium). Since 2013, she has been working as a Moral Advisor in prisons within the Foundation for Moral Assistance to Prisoners, FAMD. In this context, she also co-hosts with the filmmaker Milena Bochet, two video workshops in the Brussels’ prison, which gave birth to two short films: "What I Miss When I Can't See Far" and "My Eye is More than a Muscle.