A precious collection of paintings by Fatima Meer, smuggled out of the Johannesburg Central Prison, returned to the country on Thursday in time for a Women's Day exhibition.

The 14 pieces are to be part of a special exhibition opening on Friday night at the Bat Centre in Durban.

The exhibition depicts life in an apartheid prison.

Meer painted the pictures in 1976 while she was in solitary confinement.

Said artist Andrew Verster: "The pictures are very stark. They are like diagrams. In some of them, you see a wall, brick by brick and then on top a blue sky and even a tree.

"This for me showed hope despite the oppression and despair.

"She did 21 paintings and when they were smuggled out of prison, I kept them for a while before we got them out of the country," said Verster.

Meer was detained along with Winnie Mandela, Jeannie Noel, Sibongile Kubeka, Sally Motlana, Cecily Palmer, Joyce Seroke, Vesta Smith, Jane Phakati, Deborah Mashoba and Lorraine Tabane.

They were all members of the Black Women's Federation of South Africa and they were held under the Terrorism Act.