The Wellcome Trust is launching an international science and art project to help people cope

Walk down one of the busy streets of Lingarajapuram, in the southern Indian city of Bengaluru, and you’ll find a small shuttered shop. Inside, colorful fabrics hang from floor to ceiling, each bearing the stories of women who came here to embroider their experiences in stitches. Further on, you’ll find a swing where visitors can spend moments in solitary, soothing motion – a short way to escape the cacophony of life outside.

Indu Antony, a former doctor who decided to pursue a career as an artist, opened the space in February. She called it Namma Katte or ‘My Space’. The project is funded by London’s Wellcome Trust as part of its year-long Mindscapes initiativea new program that addresses the global mental health crisis by combining scientific research with art.

In addition to artist residencies in six cities around the world, Mindscapes exhibitions are held at the Los Angeles Library Foundation and the Los Angeles Public Library (through Nov. 6), Maury Art MuseumTokyo (until November 6) and Gropius Bau, Berlin (until 23 January 2023), with events also planned at the Hamwe Festival in Kigali, Rwanda (9-13 November). The Brooklyn Museum, New York, meanwhile, hosted an exhibition that closed in September.

Mental health is a growing and persistent public health crisis. The pandemic has led to a 25% increase in depression and anxiety, according to the World Health Organization. In line with the World Health Summit in Berlin (October 16-18) and World Mental Health Day (October 10), the Mindscapes initiative seeks to deepen understanding of a complex crisis that is felt globally but has widely varying individual and cultural challenges.

Talking about mental health is considered a certain privilege

Indu Antony

“Talking about mental health is considered a certain privilege – most people in India don’t have the time and space to sit down and think deeply about themselves,” says Antony. “Even creating places to rest, the simple act of inviting someone to sit and do nothing, can be such a luxurious, radical idea in our part of the world.” Her work will also be shown at her studio in the town of Cook, near to Lingarajapuram, before a solo exhibition at the Museum of Art and Photography in Bengaluru, India in March 2023.

Antony created Namma Katte to directly respond to a local need to create spaces outside the home environment where women can freely express themselves. “I remember hearing stories with messages like ‘women should be strong,’ which I found very superficial,” she says. “I had to keep asking them: What does it mean to you to behave this way? Where does your pain come from? Why do you express yourself like that?”

Anthony encouraged the women he met to explore their feelings more deeply. “We started with ten stories. Today we have 520 stories, many of which talk about extremely intimate things,” she says. “I don’t think the women we talked to would have been as open without Nama Kate.”

But is it really possible to tackle such a vast and nuanced topic in a global context? “This is exactly the challenge of the Mindscapes project,” says Mami Kataoka, director of the Mori Art Museum. As the pandemic hit Japan in 2020, suicide rates jumped for the first time in more than a decade. “Every region has cultural characteristics and peer pressure,” says Kataoka. “But some things are fundamental and universal to all mankind.”

The Guadalupe Maravilla exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum this summer. The artist describes his sculptures as “healing machines”. Photo: Danny Perez

The reality of the current crisis depends as much on understanding individual experiences as it does on analyzing scientific data, Kataoka says. She cites Guadalupe Maravilla, artist-in-residence at Mindscapes in New York, who presented an exhibition of her current project Disease throwers at the Brooklyn Museum this summer. The artist’s sculptures are “healing machines,” he says. They explore his childhood experiences as an undocumented immigrant who arrived in the US from El Salvador, as well as his diagnosis of colon cancer when he was young.

“The Guadalupe exhibit is really about the experience of cancer treatment,” says Rebecca Jacobs, curatorial researcher at Mindscapes in New York. “As we know, chemotherapy and radiation are hard on the body. He says that sometimes we need alternative forms of medicine to heal ourselves from Western medicine. As part of the exhibition, he will perform healing ceremonies at the museum.

A balance between the local and the universal

Daniel Olsen, Head of Cultural Partnerships at Wellcome and Curator of Mindscapes, says: “I’m not a mental health researcher, but as a keenly interested outsider, one of the challenges facing this area of ​​research is how to balance understanding and respect for uniqueness of every human life with an understanding of what big data sets can reveal about populations at scale.”

Ultimately, Mindscapes reveals that communities around the world are bound together more by similarities than differences. The project by Christine Wong Yap, a Mindscapes artist at large, highlights the way mental health is tied to what Olsen calls the “universal human need” to belong. She organized workshops with teenagers in New York, community groups in Berlin and Bengaluru, and elderly people in Tokyo, asking each group to talk about how they create a sense of belonging in their lives. The responses were compiled into books that can be used as a mental health resource.

Mental health can be a multifaceted issue, but one of the overriding needs Wong Yap noticed was the desire for a place where people “can feel free from judgment.” The bottom line for institutions is how they can provide such places for the public – on a large scale and in the long term.

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