A world-renowned Nigerian artist brought inspiration and technique to the Jefferson City Correctional Center on Wednesday.
Ibiyinka Alao led nearly 100 JCCC offenders in an art therapy workshop that focused on messages of humanity, forgiveness and community.
Alao, known for his use of vibrant colors, became Nigeria’s art ambassador after winning the United Nations international art competition. He is one of five artists Global Citizen has recognized for spreading world peace, joining John Lennon, Michael Franti, Alicia Keys and El Seed.
Alao began with a lecture entitled “Art and the Advancement of Africa: Pushing the Boundaries and Innovative Ideas to Build Africa through the Arts”, in which he reviewed works of art original stories and shared the life lessons that influenced them.
He started selling art at a young age and was encouraged by the reception he was getting. Regularly selling paintings from ages 7 to 17, he said it boosted his confidence when customers started asking for his work by name.
Then Alao learned that his father, a community leader in Nigeria, was paying prisoners to buy his art.
“Isn’t that crazy? he asked, laughing.
It was an elaborate plan to support and encourage him, Alao said. Love and encouragement aren’t always seen, he explained, but they help shape who we are.
Director Doris Falkenrath said the event was particularly valuable to the JCCC, as it takes pride in the artwork offenders produce daily.
“We try to get as many people from outside to come and visit our facilities to kind of inspire the guys who are incarcerated,” she said.
Some JCCC offenders work in leather, quilting, woodworking, drawing, painting, and more in various prison programs.
JCCC is a maximum and medium security prison with some offenders serving life sentences without parole, which means they do not have a date when they will be released.
Without goals or something to work on, Falkenrath said, they can lose hope.
“It gives them hope to keep doing what they do and maybe help people in the community with their projects,” she said. “It’s about giving people hope, giving them goals, and giving them something to look forward to on a day-to-day basis.”
Changes are often gradual, Falkenrath said, so offenders may come to JCCC feeling hopeless, but change their attitude after becoming more involved in programs that interest them. Fresh insights from visitors can create a better atmosphere, arouse offenders’ interest and help advance an offender’s progress, she said.
Alao’s work is influenced by a number of factors, such as the vibrancy and life of Nigeria, his Christian faith and the warmth of his home country. Art is a form of storytelling, Alao said. He likes to add mystery to his art to make viewers spend more time in it.
“The more time we spend with art, the more we see of it,” he said. “The more time we spend with each other…we really learn what’s inside of a person, especially their character.”
As a world traveler, Alao said he has experienced inner beauty in people from all backgrounds and cultures.
Art is an expression of humanity and portraits are representations of a person’s character, not necessarily their physical appearance, Alao said, as he presented his self-portrait.
“Whether it’s an ugly part or a beautiful part, those things don’t matter if we tell our stories at the end,” he said.
Ahmed Anderson, a Kansas City JCCC offender, said Alao’s visit to the prison taught him to appreciate art in everything.
“The question for me is to find the art in life,” he said. “That way I can really give more to life, especially being on this side in prison. It becomes a motivation when people come from outside. We get inspired by something like that.”
After sharing his philosophy and approach to art, Alao led the audience through an exercise in art therapy.
The art doesn’t have to be perfect because the stories aren’t perfect, Alao said, and the confidence has to come from your own perspective.
Alao has a pet monkey in Nigeria who likes to paint.
“He doesn’t care at all, like he considers himself a great artist, and I think he’s right because who am I to judge his work?” Alao said. “I don’t have monkey eyes, I don’t have experience with monkeys, so maybe in the world of monkeys, my monkey is like Michelangelo’s monkey or something. “
The workshop was open to offenders participating in restorative justice programs, initiatives aimed at equipping offenders with life skills while giving back to Missouri communities.
Juan Beleon, a Kansas City delinquent who works in the recreation area, said he went to the event because he was interested in art.
Beleon said he was mostly interested in drawing cars, skulls, and anything else in the Chicano art style.
Beleon had never heard of Alao, but said he wished there was more Hispanic representation among the visitors the DOC brings to the prisons.