David Chalmers by Nick Mourtzakis, 2011, commissioned for the Inner Worlds exhibition.
At the end of Mental Health Awareness Week, it’s important to have some thoughts about issues surrounding mental illness. It’s a matter that is quite close to my heart, having had loved ones affected by it, I can say it is not an easy journey for anyone and definitely not a journey that can be successfully traversed on one’s own.
I’m fascinated with psychology. To be acquainted with the inner workings of one’s mind, I feel, the possibilities are endless. Which draws me to another one of my favourite subjects- art. And one of the most memorable exhibitions I’ve ever been to at our National Portrait Gallery is “Inner Worlds: Portraits & Psychology” which is essentially the melding of two of my favourite things! There were works by Albert Tucker and Sidney Nolan, who were the biggest drawcards of the exhibition. But the works that I loved the most were a series of sketches done by psychiatric patients in the 1950s. There were elements that made these works stand out- an undeniable intensity in these seemingly understated charcoal drawings. There was also something very honest and genuine about these drawings even before I realised the story behind them. I found it interesting that the works of these untrained artists stood out among the works of high profile artists that surrounded it. I enjoyed the exhibition so much that I ended up buying the book on it. To my incredible disappointment, the book did not have any photos of these drawings by these psychiatric patients. As it’s considered part of medical records, the gallery did not have permission to publish them and even the names of the mental health patients are kept confidential in the exhibition.
The possessed by Albert Tucker, 1942
The book, however, had an interesting article on this series of 9 works, and credits Dr Eric Cunningham Dax in bring ‘Art Therapy’ into Australia in 1955. In an era where psychiatric patients were treated as sub-humans and treatments such electro-convulsive therapy were acceptable, this progression in treating psychiatric patients is admirably a forward-thinking and more humane approach. Art therapy allowed the patients to freely express themselves creatively in an art studio. Their works consequently helped the patients and the therapists in forming part of the treatment of their mental illnesses. Dr Dax believed in supporting the removal of the discrimination and stigmatisation surrounding mental illnesses. His legacy today, is the Cunningham Dax Collection, celebrating the initiative that he started more than 50 years ago.
Today, issues about stigmatisation and discrimination around mental illnesses are still being discussed. There have been substantial initiatives to change this such as the Mental Health Awareness Week and R U Ok? Day, which all attempts to help mental illness sufferers feel less isolated and create a platform for help and support. But the fact that we are still discussing stigmatisation, draws attention to the fact that a cultural shift in society is still yet to happen. Having a change in perception of mental illnesses in society will mean more individuals will feel more liberty in coming forward with their mental health issues and seek help for it.
Check out https://1010.org.au.