I had stopped going to art galleries for a while after becoming a mother. I had disengaged with all creatively unpredictable external input like new books too as I wished to avoid being plunged into depths of sadness by art. But when there was a lovely gathering for an opening of a new exhibition in Sunaparanta, an art gallery in my beloved Panjim city, I decided to bravely venture out again with my husband and our young son, who was three years old by then. The chatter, the mingling and the wine at the launch event created a sense of heady excitement for me--and yet there was something lurking within, something to do with my fears about bringing a young child to an art space, which crystallized within minutes of walking into the gallery space.
I had been wanting to protect my child from a particular kind of art and we had walked straight into it. Art is often full of pain, it can be confronting, de-centreing; it can even feel like someone pulled an organ out of your body without anesthesia. There I was, having to make a quick dash out of the gallery to focus on more mingling and then agreeing with my husband that we needed to leave the art space and return home.
My earlier work as a mental health practitioner in inner city London meant that on my way to professional meetings, I would often chance upon corridors of art that were made by mental health service users. Two corridors of art that are noteworthy in this respect, are at the psychiatric wards at Maudsley hospital in South London and at the classrooms access at The Tavi (The Tavistock and Portman Trust in Swiss Cottage, London).
After finishing work in these two places, I would go back and linger at the art in the corridors, noticing the fabulous themes and compositions that lined these walls. I knew then that this was a doorway to an eternal truth. Any aspect of life that can take us to our dark places can also hold the potential for the beginnings of light and lightness. Many healing practices are created out of this paradox.
With every painful experience that we encounter, we have the possibility of exploring the vast multitude of practices of healing and wellbeing. In this interaction between pain and healing, our unique identity is forged. I am writing this with a sacred wish that healing and therapy for mental health and existential issues become a part of our mundane reality and the forging of our true self.
Art can be expressive, healing and transformational. Art itself can hold the kernel for revisiting, reexperiencing, witness or reconstructing pain. Those of us who experience severe or enduring mental health problems and those of us who are in the grips of existential angst also have the capacity to develop greater consciousness and connection with the fulness of being human through art. We may even act as portals for the wellbeing and spiritual growth of others connected to us if we are able to receive the kind of healing that we need. It is a pity that we do not make art daily, almost as unselfconsciously as making daily meals.
After returning to India, I often thought about the lack of public appreciation of the creative capacities of those who may have mental health problems but apart from art therapy practice, I did not come across something that celebrated art and mental health together. When I chanced upon the work of one of my favourite artists from Manipur, Sony Thokchom, titled "Psychosis" I was intrigued to find out more. Manipur is where I was born and the shamanistic traditions of mental health healing have been of interest to me for a couple of decades now. Thokchom has integrated cultural motifs and universal spiritual motifs in his art work. The temple priestesses of Manipur, the Maibis, are the traditional healers and I will write about them another day as they do not make it to Thokchom’s painting. But a Khasi woman’s crown comes in as a statement for feminine wisdom and anoints the painting with a certain regal appreciation of a breakdown.
Upon further examination, I found out that Thokchom’s work was part of the first virtual residency ever hosted by the Art for Change Foundation, in partnership with The Lighthouse Experiment (an entity that, I was pleased to note, exists without an online presence). There were two other artists from North-East India who were also participating in the virtual residency.
Rangskhembor Mawblei from Meghalaya who painted ‘The Hand and the Sun’ draws on elements such as ash and turmeric to create an interplay between hopelessness, mourning, loss and death, on the one hand, and fragrance, healing, light and life on the other.
He claims the sun as ultimate source energy, which allows each one of us to have full access to that which heals us.
Geolangsar Nazary from Assam painted four different aspects of his experience when he was in the throes of a depression. Elements of nature, flowing into our concerns, edging our way out of darkness and hiding our emotion with our embodiment are visible in his work.
Isaac Gergan from Art for Change clarified that their first ever virtual residency was titled ‘Mental Health: Everybody Deserves to Have Their Story Heard’ and ran from 17 September to 2 October, 2020. Despite the limitations of a virtual residency, participants from different parts of India and from Nigeria, USA and Latvia were involved. Some of the artists in the residency have themselves experienced mental health problems or have witnessed it in their close family. Some others engaged with an outsider’s view of mental health problems. This makes for an interesting set of 50 pieces of visual and installation-based art work, which will be made available for online viewing.
The Lighthouse Experiment is an informal group of professionals committed to dismantling the stigma against mental health. Reaching out to Arpan Roy and Sharon Stanly, both of whom started this group with a commitment to mental health awareness, was a very grounding and humbling experience. They are based in Uttarakhand and approached Art for Change with this idea. The push for this initiative came up in the context of an increasing rate of suicide and depression in the Covid19 context, with one of their close friends losing a sister to suicide. They were both impressed with the depth of expression that art provides and the capacity that art has to help share a story rather than just meet people as a diagnosis. Sharon curated the mental health content for the residency and found that the experience of sharing difficulties was powerful for both the artists and the organisers.
Covid has pushed us into embracing virtual connections as our most intimate spaces, crafting a space for vulnerability in the online world. Gregan poignantly said that he realized the profound importance of the virtual residency because he realized that “the experience of making art could prevent a suicidal ideation from taking shape”.
My child, whom I was protecting from painful art, has been artistically expressing his experience of the lockdown, making houses with closed windows and an installation piece that could have been called ‘Lockdown’ as it physically prevented us from being able to move from one part of the house to another. The energy released in this expression allows him to make sense of his unexpected experience. We should all take a few minutes from our day to do this for ourselves.
The accelerated way in which we have moved toward virtual interactions could not have been imagined in a planned scenario. This disruptive growth has meant that we are all a bit more open to what we would have balked at before. In this new reality could we perhaps imagine large virtual events where everyone, young and old, just sits with colour and paper and creates art that expresses their inner world?
I know no one who would not benefit from that.
Dr. Rachana Patni is a Panjim-based leadership consultant who writes on mental & emotional wellbeing