Artists, drug addicts and mentally ill detainees mingle in fascinating event


This weekend in Ghent, the public is invited to see artworks and performances by people suffering from drug addiction and mental illness alongside works by professional artists

Who is ‘normal’?

Belgium is a frontrunner in human rights issues. It was the first nation in Western Europe to abolish the death penalty, for instance, and the second in the world to legalise euthanasia and same-sex marriage.

But when it comes to the confinement of the mentally ill, its record is less clean. In 2016, the European Court of Human Rights spoke out against the Belgian state for its treatment of mentally ill convicts.

At the time, more than 1,000 psychiatric patients were in prison without any form of treatment and lacking any legal means to improve their situation. The European Court gave Belgium two years to resolve the issue.

With the deadline expiring this month and experts claiming that the situation is far from resolved, two Ghent organisations are hosting a public event at the city’s historical Court of Appeals building this weekend. Straf! – a double-entendre meaning both “punishment” and “unbelievable” – includes performances and works of art on the theme.

Visual art, poetry and performances by professional artists will mingle with works loaned by local museums and with creations by patients of Ghent’s Forensic Psychiatric Centre – the first psychiatric penitentiary in the country – and by clients of Villa Voortman.

Villa Voortman

Housed in the shadow of Ghent’s Sint-Lucas Hospital, Villa Voortman offers arts and culture to those suffering from psychosis and drug addiction. Because of its unconventional treatment, Villa Voortman is one of the two beneficiaries receiving proceeds from the event.

“There’s no need to differentiate between the artists and the clients at the event,” says Villa Voortman co-ordinator Wim Haeck. “Popular theories indicate seven simultaneous stress factors that push you into the trap of substance abuse.”

It takes less than one might think to lose the roof over your head or to start suffering a mental breakdown, he says. “So a clear distinction between those who are ‘vulnerable’ and those who are ‘normal’ is hard to maintain.”

While hospitals and psychiatric facilities focus on what’s lacking, we focus on what the person is capable of becoming

- Wim Haeck of Villa Voortman

“Through the arts, the patient is made to feel human again,” Haeck explains. “They don’t see themselves as junkies anymore, now they’re street musicians, for instance. People reconstruct their identities here. While hospitals and psychiatric facilities focus on what’s lacking, we focus on what the person is capable of becoming.”

Interest grew for the Villa’s unorthodox treatment of addicts after it appeared on the immensely popular reality TV show Radio Gaga in 2015. A handful of PhD students are now studying the Villa’s methodology, and more than 30 psychiatric care professionals visit each month.

“There are two rules: You cannot use inside of the villa, and violence is not tolerated,” says Haeck. “We never judge people for their drug use. If they want to use, they can leave and come back later. But as people get more and more engaged in these art projects, they stay longer, increasing the time they can cope without using the substance.”


Also assisting in making Straf! happen, including helping with set-up and selling drinks, will be a group of detainees under the supervision of the organisation Obra|Baken. While the organisation keeps high-risk youth on the radar and out of prison and supervises sexual offenders, the main reason Obra|Baken will receive proceeds from the event is because of its projects for prisoners with autism, traumatic brain injuries and mental disabilities.

“When there’s a presumption of disability, we are called in to offer individual support,” explains Annelien Genbrugge, co-ordinator of Obra|Baken’s forensic team. “From reading and writing to sports and games, we organise everything that can help them get through their day in prison.”

One of Obra|Baken’s key activities is preparing, together with the justice department, its clients for their return to society, based on observations of their capabilities and the risk of recidivism. This involves assessing just how much support or supervision the detainee will need after release.

We work in the shadows. Now we’ll be in the spotlight

- Annelien Genbrugge of Obra|Baken

Activities related to this assessment takes place every week at Ghent’s Court of Appeals. “We take a group of men there for different chores: carpentry, painting, wallpapering,” says Genbrugge. “They not only come into contact with people from the outside world, they also experience the outside world on the way there. People with a disability get a sense of what they’re capable of processing or handling. Can I navigate in the city? What effects do the sounds of the traffic have on me? How many distractions do I have to resist?”

It’s not a coincidence that Saturday’s event takes place at the same site as Obra|Baken’s work-life assessment. The initial idea for the event came from the Court’s Chief Registrar, Cathrina Van den Abeele, after seeing the work done by the detainees.

“We work in the shadows,” says Genbrugge. “Now we’ll be in the spotlight. It’s proof that our work is being appreciated. It means a lot.”

22 September, Ghent Court of Appeals, Koophandelsplein 23