I kept this in mind as I visited The Expert View on Thursday evening. The installation of light boxes in Dalston Square is the culmination of Daily Life Ltd's Experts by Experience workshops, shown alongside Bobby Baker's Diary Drawings. As I explained in another post, I was lucky enough to be a participant in one of these workshops, and, I'm thrilled to say, one of my little drawings is included in the exhibition.
I was surprised that such a humble offering was included, particularly with the wealth of talent on display. Ironically, when I went to art school I became less confident in drawing; to begin with, my work was mostly text based, and then embroidery became an all-consuming compulsion, where I would stitch the design directly on to the cloth without figuring it out on paper first. Experts by Experience has inspired me to pick up the pencil (and inks, and paints, and pastels, and...) and learn how to draw again. I feel it can only be good for my textiles practice.
Despite my misgivings about my artistic capabilities, at The Expert View I was overwhelmed with positive responses to this tiny illustration of my erstwhile expertise at crying. People seemed to find it very touching, which to some extent was unexpected; I find it rather humorous. I think, in mental health, humour about the situations we find ourselves in can be a very powerful resource. That is, so long as we are not laughing at each other, or bitterly at our own "shortcomings", but together at the absurdity of the world we have to navigate.
Bobby's work, of course, is rich with the power of humour. It is very hard to be truly afraid of something if you can laugh at it. Even if that "something" is the amorphous and unpindownable "spectre of mental illness".
The drawing above, of Bobby buying Christmas presents for her loved ones, I found particularly heartening. At our workshop, Bobby showed us this drawing and explained that she loves buying presents for others. I think, in mental health, it can be so easy to discount the things that really matter in our lives; the media and society at large can reduce us to how productive we can be; to scroungers sitting around sponging up benefits, feeling sorry for ourselves, and not "contributing". But people living with mental illness have families; have loved ones; have cherished relationships, and it is of vital importance to celebrate this, because so many of us can feel like our illnesses are a huge burden on those we are closest to. We forget what we give; we forget that the world is a better place because we're in it.
I think The Expert View is palpable evidence of this. It is a celebration; a riot of colour, of life experiences, of the whole gamut of human emotion. There are contributions from mental health professionals, patients past and present, and people who intersect with the field in other ways. Of course, you could be all three, and that is, in part, the point. The question being posed is Who is the expert? And the answer, given in the installation flyer, is another question: Who's to say?
People who study and treat mental ill health, psychiatrists, psychologists, support workers, doctors, nurses; can they ever understand these illnesses in the same way as people with lived experience? I would argue not; unless of course, they have lived experience of mental illness themselves. Certainly, mental health professionals can bring expertise to the table that those of us with lived experience may not have; years of training and study, in-depth understanding of individual illnesses and symptoms, and (hopefully) the compassion which brought them to the profession in the first place. But this can sometimes translate to seeing people as just a set of symptoms to be "cured" and not an individual. Perhaps a more holistic approach is required. Which is where art comes in.
Daily Life Ltd.'s Experts by Experience workshops were not art therapy. They were not an exercise in psychoanalysing our drawings, or a means of alleviating symptoms. For some of us, these may have been by-products of the workshop, but this was not the objective. What I came away with from the workshop was a profound sense that there is very little separating those designated "mad" and those designated "sane". For some people, that is a deeply troubling thought, but as an individual who has been placed in both categories at different times, I found it comforting.
This is why I think it is so important for The Expert View to be exhibited in such a public and well-frequented place. Members of the public whose lives have been touched, or not, by mental illness, will happen across the installation in their daily lives. I'm already proud to be a part of this exhibition. If even one person who happens upon it reconsiders mentally ill people as people just like them, I will feel I have made a very small but nonetheless substantial difference for mentally ill people in this country. Being involved in this project has already made a difference to me personally; I'm more open, more outspoken about mental health injustices, and more enlightened.
The Expert View shows what people with experience of mental ill health are capable of; beautiful, riveting, touching, hilarious, heart-breaking, unique art, positively zinging with life.