Freedom from Torture: The Art Auction – Interview with Stuart Semple

Freedom from Torture : The Art Auction is a great idea that we fully support. It uses artwork from some of the UK’s most respected artists including Anthony Gormley, Jake & Dinos Chapman, Cornelia Parker, Gavin Turk, Stuart Semple, Julian Opie, and Michael Craig Martin to raise money and awareness for survivors of torture. Claire Hazelton met with Stuart Semple to talk about his sense of personal involvement in the initiative.

I wait in between the cauliflower and the carrots at the entrance of the food shop/café and scan the East London crowds for a swish of side-parted, light brown hair. I expect Stuart to wander into my vision just as he appears sometimes in his paintings, quietly and humbly, but he arrives with a grin, in bright blue, with a hug and friendly hello. Stuart is one of the many London artists donating work to the auction of Freedom From Torture’s Art Week, a week where the power of art as therapy, expression, inspiration and as fundraiser is utilized and showcased in a series of events towards the charity’s cause; the 23rd sees the private view of an exhibition of art works called ‘thirty-six pounds’ by survivors of torture, the next evening a night of performance and then a pop-up shop amongst other events. The ‘Artists Drawing a Line Under Torture’ art auction on the 28th November is the highlight, featuring works donated by some of the biggest names in contemporary art, set towards raising a significant contribution towards the continuation of Freedom From Torture’s courageous work.

“It’s vital,” Stuart says as we begin to discuss the charity’s work. “25 years it’s been going, and when you think about the victims of torture, people who have survived such horrible things and arrive in England… it becomes such a complex problem; there’s this stigma that they’re ‘asylum seekers’, ‘scroungers’, but we’re all human beings!” He shakes his head as he talks, “These are people who have been through God knows what. They need a hug, a cup of tea. They need to see the garden and feel like they’re actually in the world, that they belong somewhere! And that’s what Freedom From Torture do. They’ve helped over 50,000 of these people, giving them the chance to live like they have the right to live.”

At the heart of Freedom From Torture is therapy. When Stuart talks about therapy, in particular creative therapies, he speaks with an undeniable passion and, in some ways, it is because he speaks from experience; Stuart’s career as an artist started after a sudden anaphylactic attack at the age of 19 that almost killed him. He used art as a form of catharsis, control and, in a sense, accidental therapy. “The first thing the doctors did was dish out drugs, then cart me off to group therapy. In the end I saw a good psychologist, who did help, but meanwhile, I was making my work and that helped me more than all of the rest put together.” Stuart’s understanding of the importance of creative therapy has also led him to become an ambassador for the mental health charity, Mind. “I’ve set up a creative therapies fund within Mind, enabling anyone experiencing mental ill health to participate in creative therapies that are just so under-funded by the government yet so vital for so many people. It’s what I can do to help.” The way Stuart talks clarifies his point; there’s a desperation and urgency in his voice when we talk about helping people. “Art is one of the most powerful things we’ve got. It does really work, beyond fundraising. It helps articulate how you feel. If you look at the art these survivors of torture make, and how they express themselves, it gives us such an insight: how to look after them, what they need.”

“There are a lot of these charity auctions,” Stuart says as we talk about how he became involved in the project. “The thing is, it’s really hard saying no because every cause is a good cause. But, of course, I only have so much work and I only have so much time, so I’d rather give myself in a much deeper way to the things I really believe in, where I can really help, like Mind, creative therapies, victims of torture and amnesty. Those areas I feel I can really bring something to. It makes sense, knowing it helped me, to try and help other people.”

We move onto the piece which Stuart has donated to the auction, a painting dotted with angular lines forming geometric diamond shapes on a monochrome background, titled Diamond (Purple), and discuss what it’s about. “The diamond trade to start. Just the obscenity that people go to: what drives a human being to hurt another human being? Greed. A quest for wealth. It’s outrageous. But, also on the other side, the piece is about how everybody’s got this inner beauty; a lump of coal can even shine. It’s a double take.” He pauses again and reverts back, pondering, “it’s obscene how some people are treated… it’s gross. But it’s why I do it, you know?” I nod. “My work is for the victims. We need to do little things like this to help as much as we can.”

‘Artists Drawing A Line Under Torture’, Freedom From Torture’s art auction takes place on the 28th November. RSVP, bid and find out more about the Art Week on their website

words Claire Hazelton


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