On 10 April, artist and writer Colin Hambrook read prose and poetry from Fools’ Gold: Notes from the End of Time alongside a projection of illustrations that accompany the texts, as part of Art Words, a weekly event at Phoenix Brighton. Review by Elinor Rowlands.
Art Words gives space to the voices often impaired by disabling structures and systems; voices shut down or excluded. These are some of the same voices whose creativity arises naturally using their mental health issues in their art as tools for expression, creation and connection with the soul.
We enter the performance space led by Colin Hambrook unravelling a ball of yellow wool and passing the thread along to each audience member in turn.
As we become seated we see a drawing of a boat made of yellow wool projected at the back of the room. We are to be taken on a journey linking a personal story about the artist’s relationship with his mother to a political narrative about a history of Psychiatry.
In a conversation following the performance, Hambrook elucidates that “the references to being half-born in the text are very much linked to the trauma attached to medical systems that marginalise and make invisible the children of parents with mental health issues.”
It is this invisibility that Hambrook conveys through rich imagery, detailing his rage at the violence psychiatry has gotten away with historically; patients have been tortured, mistreated and often murdered by barbaric practices held up as pioneering treatments.
He talks about how Dr Henry Cotton’s theory of focal sepsis as a cause of psychosis led to the removal of teeth and organs in the asylums where his mother was a patient.
His prose alludes to medical diagnoses made without scientific backing – mirroring the suffering of countless neurodiverse populations. The cruelty and trauma that children of parents who were sent to these asylums experienced is as easily forgotten as the barbaric treatment their parents received from psychiatric treatments such as electroconvulsive therapy.
Interestingly, Hambrook’s performance and the discussion afterwards relate the experience of grief as being key to trauma, mental health issues and psychosis.
In the post-performance conversation, one audience member reflected on Colin’s reference to the Akashic Records:
“The story of Colin’s mum knitting struck a chord, as in the last few years I have become obsessed with interlace and knotwork design; in Arabic, Oriental, Nordic and Germanic ancient cultures as well as the ubiquitous Celtic, because to me it represents the interconnectedness of all things.”
Earlier, Hambrook recounted a time when aged 14, his mother had encouraged him to use art materials to describe his own psychosis. In doing this, she gave him a gift, the power of expression and truth.
This was picked up by an audience member during the discussion who had disclosed to me that she’d dropped out of her art course due to lack of access: “It is in the expressing of truth that art can question and even challenge power.”
Her contribution reminded me of poet Robert Frost’s assertion that power and poetry are coupled together. He was chosen by John F. Kennedy to speak at the president’s inauguration about the place of art in politics. After Frost’s death, Kennedy spoke in remembrance of him about how poetry is the means of saving power from itself:
“When power leads man toward arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations […] If sometimes our great artists have been the most critical of our society, it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice, which must motivate any true artist, make them aware that our Nation falls short of its highest potential.”
In describing their own experiences of psychosis, some audience members warmly described it as being a time of truth to be honoured. Another described how psychosis is a way for ancestors to speak to us. For him, during his darkest moments, he creates the most prolific and detailed worlds.
Yet, the group acknowledged that so many artist survivors of both the medical/psychiatry system experience a divide from mainstream artists and thinkers who continue to see mental health as something to fear, tranquilise, fix, overcome or manage.
It is refreshing to be amongst artists so open to these themes and Hambrook notes that even in a secular society there is a need for ritual, which art spaces can satisfy through a will towards integration, collaboration and exchange of ideas.
Mainstream arts and mental health models will only be richer, more transformative and rewarding if they make space for excluded voices, embodying change, expression and creative invention.