Justice Let’s Face It: Notes from an exhibition
My week-long painting exhibition ‘Justice Let’s Face It’ finished, leaving me with a sense of relief and exhaustion but primarily a sense of satisfaction and a deeper insight into people’s perceptions and experiences of the Criminal Justice System. I had expected the paintings to produce comments both negative and positive – many people pop into the Totnes local community gallery in Devon expecting paintings of poppies or seascapes. Some visitors were definitely disappointed whilst others were surprised but pleased and even excited. I was gratified that my paintings generated wide-ranging discussions on justice and the human condition.
For those who have not seen images of any of the paintings, none of the people depicted represent a named individual (with the exception of two images of barristers); and the pictures are ambiguous as to who or where they might be. My intention was to capture the immense variety of individuals who participate in the CJS whether by choice or not; and to encapsulate the common experiences shared by all involved in almost every aspect of the justice process: those of isolation, vulnerability, concentration, relief, contemplation and confusion. The paintings represent ‘the faces’ and the experiences of those people, such feelings and emotions being shared at least at some level by both CJS professionals and the vulnerable alike.
I imagined that the paintings might resonate with individuals even if they had never been personally involved in the justice process, because the experiences and emotions depicted are common to many other institutions. In part for this reason, I provided a book and invited comments. The vast majority of written comments were positive. For example:
‘Thank you for letting us feel into another difficult world’
‘Such an un-discussed space especially visually’
‘An insight into the CJS’
‘Justice and Kindness are so real’
‘It made me feel like crying’
However, another wrote: ‘BLEAK’, following this by: ‘. . . but nice colours’.
One anonymous visitor wrote about her experience on a jury and being very aware of the significant vulnerability of both the defendant and the prosecution witness, something to which the ‘pompous judge’ was apparently oblivious.
During my week of ‘stewarding‘ the exhibition I also spoke with a great many people. The understanding of a significant proportion was based only on television and films. Others expressed feelings of hostility towards the justice system and how they had been treated. They spoke of their frustrations and difficulties; and the consequences to them or someone they cared about.
Several conversations stand out for me. Two shared common dehumanising experiences of Family Courts, describing feeling disempowered, overwhelmed and afraid. One young woman explained how she felt there was a very male-dominated perspective and one she had to both yield to and conform to. She movingly told me about her ‘court uniform’ that she put on to attend court and other meetings ‘so as I would not look too stupid, too hippy, too posh, too poor or too rich’. She said ‘I needed to look a mummy but not too smart. I even put my hair up in such a way that no one could see just how long it was’.
Disconcertingly, a lady talked about being on a jury and being aware of one member having very poor understanding of English, frequently stating ‘I am back work tomorrow’; and not appreciating the difference between ‘not guilty’ and ‘guilty’. Apparently this same juror ‘did do a lovely drawing of the judge during the trial’!
Several people talked about the waiting at court, of not being kept informed, the stress of seeing defendants and having comments directed to them by the defendant’s family, of waiting to give evidence, then not being required but no one telling them; and of feeling their traumas were dismissed or viewed as not being that significant.
One retired defence lawyer highlighted some progress in the system: as an articled clerk she used to type up all her own correspondence whilst her male colleagues had secretaries. She imagined that now both sexes have to do their own typing.
Finally, it was good to hear the exchange between two friends as they left the gallery discussing plans to go away ‘I go to the theatre in London, the Old Bailey, just to watch the drama’.
The paintings have arisen in response to my last eight years of working as a Registered Intermediary and have been completed over a two-year period. It has been a great privilege to share the images with the four hundred people who visited the exhibition and to engage in wide-ranging conversation about all aspects and experiences of the Criminal Justice System.
Ann King, RI