An art collective is helping those in the creative field battle mental health challenges together, writes Aznim Ruhana Md Yusup.
Art has been shown to be good for mental health. It leads to a calm feeling that helps reduce stress and anxiety. It allows people to express themselves as they see fit, through which art becomes an external outlet for their internal issues.
Something else that’s also good for mental health is having personal connections.
Mental illness often leads to social isolation, where the individual feels removed from other people. A group of understanding friends with similar experiences can be invaluable for recovery.
MyKolektif is an art collective that combines these two aspects to help its members in their struggles with mental health. Members include visual artists, poets and filmmakers.
“We have 25 artists in the collective and 11 of us came together for an online exhibition on World Mental Health Day in October last year,” says MyKolektif member Tan Su Mei, 32.
An online exhibition has more longevity, unlike a physical exhibition that gets taken down after a certain period, she adds.
Many of the members have a diagnosed mental illness but the group is open to anyone who’s going through their own internal struggles. There are also artists with a physical disability or illness in the group because their condition also affects their mental health.
GROUP OF EQUALS
Based in Melbourne, Australia where she works as an art therapist, Tan started the group as part of her university project. But she’s in the group as a peer, not a leader or therapist.
“Standard mental health treatment focuses solely on the invidual. They talk to a therapist and maybe take medication,” says Tan.
“But in many traditional cultures, recovery is communal. So MyKolektif acts as a community-based initiative where people don’t have to struggle alone. It’s also complementary to regular treatment.”
Tan says art is a safe medium for people to process trauma or to work through their issues. It’s a way to communicate or tell a story and it’s often intuitive. It’s also voluntary, so there’s no real pressure on members to create any particular artwork.
Meanwhile, showing art can be a vulnerable experience, especially when it’s a very personal subject. Showing it creates space for the artist to be criticised, sometimes by people who don’t even try to understand what is being conveyed.
“I did an artwork that used blood,” says Tan. “It was posted on a friend’s Instagram account and it received a lot of comments. But I’m at a point in my mental health journey where I’m open to criticism.”
“But I understand that not everyone is comfortable with strangers criticising their work. We have members who are not ready to be identified and that’s fine. With art, it doesn’t have to be explicit.”
WORD BY WORD
While it might be scary, MyKolektif member Nasuha Suhaili, 32, says it’s not necessarily a bad thing for people to talk about your artwork.
“When people start conversations about mental health through our art, it helps create awareness and remove the stigma surrounding it. If you are struggling with it yourself, it makes you feel less alone,” she says.
Nasuha is a poet and goes by the name Queen Nash for public performances. She’s been writing poetry throughout her life, and credits it for helping her express herself during times when it was difficult to talk plainly about her struggles.
“I see the collective as a safe space where people can be brave about their art. It’s a support group, a sounding board and occasional collaborative partner,” she says.
Author Liya Red, 30, agrees. She’s written a book called Trust Overboard about her experience with domestic violence but she mainly writes poetry with MyKolektif.
“Some of my poetry is very personal but that’s the good thing about being in a collective like this. I can see my work being accepted and people in the group aren’t offended. That makes me feel supported as an artist and an individual,” she says.