Behind the mask

After visiting the Mind Matters exhibition, Namira Hossain explains how art can help break the stigma of mental illness


People like to use the word ‘normal’ a lot. ‘Normal’ feels safe, it is known, it is what everybody else is doing, it is staying inside your comfort zone. It does not have the cringe-factor, it does not make you think. It is what it is. For Sarah Fardeen, a young psychotherapist, normal is not quite what she had in mind when she decided to have an exhibition under her project ‘Mind Matters’ where the artworks would depict subjects such as anxiety, depression, schizophrenia and suicide amongst others. ‘Stigma is everywhere – everyone is trying to fight stigma, but I thought if I do something that is more group specific, it may have more of an impact,’ she shares.


Her idea was to have some out-of-the-box campaigns on issues raising mental health awareness and to address different issues through different groups of people. The first offering of this project was an exhibition that took place on January 27 and 28, at the Newscred office in Banani which featured art installations from various artists.


The space was curated brilliantly by Katerina Don, who had the artworks displayed in such a manner that they not only stood out, but also told a story. A story that was deeply personal to all the artists which was evident through the obvious effort they put into thinking about how to depict the difficult subjects that were given. Mahenaz Chowdhury, who had the first exhibit, used broken mirrors as a way to portray Dissociative Identity Disorder.


This is a complex psychological condition that is likely caused by several factors including severe trauma in childhood from instances of repetitive physical, sexual or psychological abuse. But for Chowdhury, this proved as a way for her to look at the very core of herself through multiple broken reflections. She shares, ‘we all have different personalities and different masks that we reserve for people.’ Her exhibit included a mirrored octagon with a melting face inside it, surrounded by three larger broken mirrors on the side. Having the medium of an installation as opposed to a painting or a sketch, allowed Chowdhury to really push the boundaries of her creative freedom as well as challenge herself. ‘This is the first time I did anything like this and it was very interactive – because I had the space I wanted to create a piece that would make people think about the issue in a focused manner,’ she says.


Right after Chowdhury’s piece was another installation by Nuhash Humayun which represented suicide and showed two mannequins – one sitting down and one about to jump off the wall. The mannequins were accompanied by a comic book with stories about a young man whose thoughts of ending his life are never too far away. Despite tackling such a heavy subject, the piece was an intriguing one that invited you to go inside the artist’s mind rather than shirk away from hearing about his pain.


It was interesting to see how each of the artists took the topics that were given to them through a workshop by Fardeen to expand their understanding of the disorder and used that knowledge to create something that was entirely their own, derived from their own experiences.


Saria Saguaro of Pretty Sh*tty Art fame also did a piece on Dissociative Identity Disorder using various, distorted  portraits of herself because she wanted to think about mental illness as a part of one’s own being, not something that happens to him/her. Then another artist, Tabassum Salma Islam created a whole mosaic out of wooden tiles as a homage to daydreaming because she was told as a child that it was bad to daydream. There were more notable exhibits such as one which used different colors in a Rorschach test and a beautiful cube which was painted and used lighting to reflect different parts by Maleena Gomez. A whole room with flashing lights was dedicated to Schizophrenia as artist Saiqa Chowdhury wanted to create a stimulating environment where one would not have an idea about what is going on as a disturbing way to enter a person’s mind who is afflicted by schizophrenia.



There were two video installations, one by Kazi Istela which showed three different components of herself, each experiencing different emotions. The first was used to represent the inner critic, which always tells us that we are not good enough. The second was used to show how she is in a relationship, where she bottles up all her feelings inside and does not share with the other person. The last one represented social anxiety and how we always act as though we are okay in front of other people despite what is going on inside. ‘These three different situations builds up into a crisis which I cannot compartmentalise or take anymore,’ she says. Her way of coping with the crisis is to do meditation and deep breathing while picturing opening a flower which was also shown in the video.
When asked about sharing personal stories through art, Istela thinks that it is a great way to create dialogue as people often have a hard time sharing with others about depression or how they feel. The Mind Matters exhibition perhaps strayed far from our boundaries of ‘normal’ but it fulfilled its’ intention. By using art we can open up our minds far beyond just words as some experiences or emotions are much more primal than what language can convey. Fardeen says that she was amazed by the responses from people. ‘When your 70 year old colleague tells you that you changed his perception on mental illness, you know it’s an achievement even if it is tiny,’ laughs Fardeen.