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Exploring and investigating the idea of mental health through visual art

How visual artists express the ideas of personal pain or practice arts as a therapy to convey on the theme of mental health.

by Rahul KumarPublished on : Dec 28, 2021

The process of making art, visual art in particular, is empowering. Almost every child dabbles in drawing and painting. Not only is the very act enjoyable, one is able to create without the baggage of being judged. Unlike mathematics or science, where things are binary to be ladled right or wrong quickly, art is subjective and non-binary. Further, one need not undergo an extensive learning process to be able to express through art. There are no theorems to learn or equations to solve. Colour will spill on the canvas and clay will respond to touch. And that is extremely gratifying, therefore empowering. Practice of art is also meditative. It is an all-consuming activity that allows for simple gestures to result in spontaneous imagery.

Untitled-Various thread with paper | Priya Ravish Mehra | Mental health| STIRworld
Untitled-Various thread with paper by Priya Ravish Mehra Image: Courtesy of Gallery Threshold

Mental health has been a topic of concern in the recent past. Our fast-paced life, bombardment of ‘breaking’ news through various media, and an aspirational life portrayed through the social media leads to a restless mind. Disconnected life owing to COVID-19 pandemic has accentuated the issue of mental health. Studies have proved that art has helped people dealing with such concerns. A recent report by ‘What Works Wellbeing’ in association with Brunel University, University of Brighton, The University of Winchester, and London School of Economics, examined this hypothesis. The preface states: “The importance of the visual arts in contributing to the wellbeing of adults with mental health conditions has been little documented beyond some insightful and influential interventions and exploratory studies. Initiatives such as ‘Arts on Prescription’ projects have, in the United Kingdom, provided examples of the positive effects that engagement in artistic and creative activity can have, and some of these have been documented in small-scale studies of interventions. Most of the evidence has been perceived as positive but of limited scale. In this context, this review was carried out to examine in a more focused way the ‘subjective wellbeing’ (SWB) outcomes of engagement with the visual arts for adults with a background history of mental health conditions. SWB embraces both the positive and negative feelings that arise in individuals based on their view of the world, how they think about themselves and others, and what they do in the interactions and practices of everyday life”.

I had the fortune to have closely interacted with Priya Ravish Mehra, an Indian artist who extensively worked with textile and paper-pulp on the theme of ‘repair’. Her practice was the first where I encountered an artist expressing about own health with great sensitivity. Mehra worked with darners and the idea of repair was parallel to her own ongoing fight with cancer. More than the act of ‘expressing’, for her it was an act of self-healing. The aesthetics of her art went beyond mere object of beauty. It celebrated the damaged and encouraged viewers to accept the idea of imperfection and shortcomings with grace.

6hr5mins | Neerja Kothari | Mental health | STIRworld
6hr5mins by Neerja Kothari Image: Courtesy of Gallery Shrine Empire

My recent interactions with two contemporary artists helped me get a deeper understanding of this theme. I was most intrigued when I first saw the works of Neerja Kothari. They hung in a quiet corner of the private viewing room at Gallery Shrine Empire in New Delhi. From a distance the imagery seemed like a minimal non-representational one. But on knowing more about the intent and her process, it made the art that much more authentic. Her latest exhibit was aptly titled Keeping Score. It takes on the twin meaning of a musical score, an homage to the extent to which music has helped her with pain management, and also the meticulous count that she keeps of every muscle movement during laborious physiotherapy — at first to salvage the function of her muscles and later, to regain and maintain it. The two bodies of work, To the notes of 10s and 11s and To the beats of 10s and 11s, capture the title of the exhibition accurately. Shedding abstract pictorial (numerical) representation of numbers, the artist chalks a circle, or what appears to resemble a new moon for the 10 cycles of an exercise completed, and the staccato of a short line to render the moment her gluteus maximus — the largest muscle in the human body — froze, confirming motor sensory neuropathy. She attempted the 11th cycle three times in vain before giving up. This traumatic memory etched upon her body cathartically plays itself out in a loop in these drawings, winding around itself like a vinyl record coded with different notes even as it maintains the optics of consistency. “I often wonder whether the audience needs to know about why I do the work I do. Like do you give out the key to the code or have them figure it out. But perhaps more and more it becomes clearer that they have a better understanding of the work if they are privy to some of the background,” she says.

Breathe Release| Neerja Kothari | STIRworld
Breathe Release by Neerja Kothari Image: Courtesy of Gallery Shrine Empire

Kothari recovered from a prolonged illness but continues to manage her condition. She began to experiment with various art forms and even took up formal art education. She says, “I never intended to make work about my illness or recovery but slowly that conversation started creeping into the work I was doing. Sub consciously I would end up counting these small cellular drawings I was making. Every mark was counted and accounted for”. This further led to conversations about why she was doing that, and a realisation that experience and the trauma, the healing were all part and parcel of who she was. “It was so deeply embedded within my body, within my psyche, and within my every day. I had to rebuild my body and the way my brain sees it as a rebuilding of movements by numbers. Numbers that were measures of exercises, the repetition of movements and the marking of time,” she adds.

Gesture, by the healing vibrations of the singing bowls | Neerja Kothari| Mental Health | STIRworld
Gesture, by the healing vibrations of the singing bowls by Neerja Kothari Image: Courtesy of Gallery Shrine Empire

For Kothari, art gave her voice to speak, about her illness and experience of recuperating. “Art definitely became my mode of expression. Where words fail to express the lived experience, art gave me that mode of communication to express myself and to tell my stories,” she says. In contrast, for visual artist Rohan Hande, art was a way to escape. He explains, “I wasn’t so sure of my purpose or the lack of. There was a constant pull between how I perceived myself and how I am perceived by others. This cognitive dissonance led me to explore the worthiness of my self-image with the We Are…. Each collage consisted of four similar close-up portraits. Three with different tops and one without any. This allowed me to express how I felt around people and in my own company.”

Current mood | Rohan Hande | Mental Health | STIRworld
Current mood by Rohan Hande Image: Rohan Hande

For him making art has been the only viable medium where he is the only judge of his work. His preferred medium is the analogue collage process. Talking about the process itself, he says, “Beginning with a rough inception, then moving on to finding objects that may or may not work, then combing them to create a piece that might just be completely different from that initial draft. This might sound counter-intuitive, but I realised this was the natural flow of things. I discovered my limitations, only to be able to not conform to them and break new ground for myself. I could not breathe at my own pace. I still experience anxiety and insecurity, but through the process of collages and meditation, they are acquaintances I can deal with now. And this acknowledgement and acceptance has made me a lot less afraid.”

Personal Old Man | Rohan Hande | STIRworld
Personal Old Man by Rohan Hande Image: Rohan Hande

Kothari sees her overall practice as an archive of the body. How does an adult brain relearn everything that perhaps comes naturally to a child? How does one remember? How does one forget? And how does one forget that preciousness of remembering? How does the brain deal with the ideas of being trapped, in not just our own idiosyncrasies but the systems around us? How does it react to those systems which are entrusted to us? How do we heal?

Personal Disconnect | Rohan Hande | STIRworld
Personal Disconnect by Rohan Hande Image: Rohan Hande

Hande rejects the need for his work to be seen as high art or even the viewer to fully empathise with his views. He explains, “I don’t expect my audience to look for genesis of my work from a small collection of artworks. But maybe sometime in the future the picture might reveal itself just like the collages”.

He underwent an ambitious project to research on the subject. “The We Are… phase was certainly the most tumultuous for me. It took me a few years to come out of that confusion and disorder. I still have my research points on a whiteboard in my studio that also act as a reminder to not go down that path again. And it will probably stay there. So, for now, I think I’ll focus on creating visuals expressing my story. I am realising as I say this, I am back full circle to creating art for spectacle like I used to, but equipped with the importance of narrative and an understanding of the worthiness of self-image,” he says.

We are self | Rohan Hande | STIRworld
We are self by Rohan Hande Image: Rohan Hande

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