Ai Weiwei, Idris Khan et al create artworks with inmates for Sotheby’s exhibition 

Sotheby’s London will showcase the work of leading artists – from Ai Weiwei to Cornelia Parker and Idris Khan – created in collaboration with inmate artisans supported by the charity Fine Cell Work

A detail from Odyssey in Quilting (2019), a collaborative embroidery between Ai Weiwei and 13 inmates across eight prisons
A detail from Odyssey in Quilting (2019), a collaborative embroidery between Ai Weiwei and 13 inmates across eight prisons | Image: © Ai Weiwei/courtesy Fine Cell Work

On 26 February, Sotheby’s London will unveil Human Touch, an exhibition of artworks created by British inmates supported by the charity Fine Cell Work in collaboration with international contemporary artists, including Ai Weiwei, Idris Khan and Francis Upritchard.

Numbers – A Hand-sewn Photograph (2019), created by Idris Khan and an inmate called Ben. It represents the marks drawn on cell walls to count time
Numbers – A Hand-sewn Photograph (2019), created by Idris Khan and an inmate called Ben. It represents the marks drawn on cell walls to count time | Image: © Idris Khan/courtesy Fine Cell Work
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The extraordinary textile designs are the fruit of months-long exchanges between the artists and artisans. “Finally, you reach the point when I would say it is perfect,” Ai Weiwei wrote to his team of 13 inmates across eight prisons on completion of their collaborative artwork. The piece – an intricate hand-embroidered black-and-white quilt spanning over four square metres – depicts the travels of migrants across borders, a recurring theme of the artist’s art and activism. One inmate named Ben said of the project: “For this work to be stitched by people who have their own battles and struggles truly shows what this piece is about.”

Void (2019) – a collaborative embroidery by prisoners and Carolina Mazzolari
Void (2019) – a collaborative embroidery by prisoners and Carolina Mazzolari | Image: © Idris Khan/courtesy Fine Cell Work
The Artists (2019) – a paravent with upholstered silk panels by Francis Upritchard and six inmates
The Artists (2019) – a paravent with upholstered silk panels by Francis Upritchard and six inmates | Image: © Francis Upritchard/courtesy Fine Cell Work

The works on show reveal the impressive range of techniques and styles of those trained by Fine Cell Work, the British charity committed to fostering hope and self-worth among prisoners by teaching them creative needlework skills. Idris Khan and Ben realised a silkscreen fabric artwork representing the tallies used to count time by inmates on a prison wall; Francis Upritchard worked with six embroiderers on a large upholstered paravent in Italian silk; while Wolfgang Tillmans and three inmates recreated the artist’s EU campaign poster as a large cushion with elaborate needlepoint.

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The works go on public display at Sotheby’s London gallery until 3 March, and will be sold through offers invited over a guide price (which starts at £3,000). All proceeds will support the charity’s efforts to provide training to inmates in over 30 British prisons and offer post-prison support programmes upon release. In 2019, the charity trained 600 people, who spent 24 hours a week stitching in their cells. The reoffending rate within the first year of release among Fine Cell Work’s trainees is just three per cent, compared to the 48 per cent national average.

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