More Human: Mental Health and Art in Indonesia and Beyond
CW: mentalism, psychiatric oppression, and sanism
(listen to this selection, read by Diane R. Wiener)
I first discovered art as cathartic in maintaining my sanity during my high school years. I realized then that it had been my response to the mental crises I had experienced since I was a kid. There were many things that contributed to shaping my mental state at a fairly extreme level, including violence, harassment, rejection, stigma, and discrimination. I found comfort in spilling my fears, the noises in my head, and my anger, sadness, depression, and uncontrollable euphoria into a sketchbook.
In 2013, I was finally able to get medical treatment in a Jakarta hospital’s psychiatric ward. What happened during that hospitalization will stay with me for the rest of my life. There was no sense of relaxation—only feelings of fear, isolation, and a sense of floating.
I know now that my mental disability doesn’t make me any less human. I’m whole and valid. And I’m trying to keep showing that. I speak up not to be pitied, but to voice my worries. I make my mental disability an identity worth celebrating. Disability Art reflects the experience of disability not as a barrier, but as an appropriate and useful subject for artwork. I hope to raise awareness to bring about political change for people with mental disabilities. I’m not talking about anything that describes me according to other people’s perceptions. I tell my own story and present my perception of mental health and the issues around it.
I’ve learned a lot and appreciate many things from my life experiences: how I was raised, how I was listened to and (eventually) humanized—regardless of the rights or wrongs others did to me at that time. But I try to understand that the issue of mental health literacy in Indonesia is very minimal. And what I have been voicing so far in most of my artwork has helped open a conversation in Indonesia and elsewhere about what has been trapped beneath the surface so that mutually reinforcing narratives can be built and supported.
I try to shift public thinking that has been formed in Indonesia due to the influence of social, cultural, and media backgrounds which nearly always present mental health issues from negative perspectives. These negative explanations for and understandings of mental health issues are wide-ranging: disturbance by evil spirits, being possessed by a demon, criminal acts, psychotic homelessness. Each of these explanations is a clear reflection of the failure of the family and government institutions to address mental health concerns adequately or accurately.
To me, each artist plays a different and important role in contributing to the health, development, and well-being of our society. As an artist, I feel that I must continue to present works that provide joy, interaction, and inspiration, while offering a thoughtful critique of the systems in place in order to encourage the community to engage wisely and make steps toward social progress. I want to be a professional artist without hiding my identity. I want people to find their voices and express their concerns without any fear.
In 2016, I was trusted by the British Council of Indonesia to be one of the delegates attending the Unlimited Festival in London. That experience gave me tremendous encouragement that one day Indonesia would have its own arts and disability festival. Two years later, we organized the first and biggest arts and disability festival in Indonesia, “Festival Bebas Batas,” which can be translated as “Unlimited Festival.” Taking place at the National Gallery of Indonesia, with the support of the government and the British Council of Indonesia, we held painting workshops in several mental hospitals in Indonesia. We collected the works of psychiatric survivors to be displayed at the exhibition, “Road To Festival Bebas Batas,” at Ultimate 3 Soekarno Hatta International Airport in Jakarta.
That same year, I created a collaborative project with a UK mad artist and mental health activist James Leadbitter (aka The Vacuum Cleaner). Our film, In Chains, premiered at Festival Bebas Batas. The film was screened thereafter at two festivals in Germany, followed by some exhibitions and festivals in the UK and Australia. In Chains focuses on Istana KSJ (known informally as “The Palace”), a radical and autonomous mental health community that is rebuilding lives in Cianjur, West Java, Indonesia. Many of those living at KSJ have previously been subjected to a practice of shackling, chaining, or confinement (known as Pasung) because of their disability; some individuals endured these practices for decades. The film is a portrait of this community and its residents, and how it works (and what it means) to humanise those who have been previously denied their humanity.
James and I felt compelled to make In Chains because we felt Pasung really represents the terrible state of mental health in Indonesia. People are slowly starting to become more aware of mental health problems, especially in big cities where people have the privilege of being able to easily access information and mental health facilities. But can we also focus our views on those who are left behind due to poverty, lack of education and lack of access, especially in areas where society still perpetuates inhumane practices? KSJ is one example of how a radical mental health institution can build a healing culture that is empowering in the midst of a culture of ableism.
However, as Human Rights Watch and others have underscored, Indonesia has much more work to do with respect to literacy on mental health, especially for vulnerable groups such as disabled folks, people of color, exploited children, members of LGBTQ+ communities, and people with HIV. There are also many things we can do as members of the general public, including socializing the new law through social media or creative channels such as making infographics. We can aggressively engage in grassroot movements and activities (small but frequent is so much better than big but once off). Cross-sector collaboration between artists and communities or artists and organizations that care about these issues are key.
For me, surviving madness and centering the “voiceless” is a liberating practice. I believe a sense of wholeness, partisanship, and dignity is the right of every person. Whether we have “recovered” or are “still fighting,” we deserve love, security, community, and solidarity.
Lifting up people with lived experience is not just about healing; it’s about building solidarity with other marginalized communities and realizing the fact that we exist and we deserve to be a part of this world. People with lived experience happen to be some of the people who suffer the most because of our inability to function optimally in society and our needs are always considered as an exception by the existing system.
Can we stop degrading and depriving the human rights of mad people and start asking WHY? Why do you want to die? Why are you so angry? Why are you so depressed? Why are you harming yourself or others? And if we will listen and understand their complexity, we will discover a thousand deeper reasons. A “why” that underlies and brings all of these questions together. And that is: A system. Where we live in a world that doesn’t stand for our existence, a world that is unsafe, intimidating, and full of violence.
Over the years, I have learned so much from my own journey about the values of collectivity, togetherness, acceptance, and understanding. How we as figures who have power can empower others to stand together and listen to what we really need to get our rights. And art is proven to be one of the best ways to achieve that.
I try to normalize the conversations about mental health—beginning with my smallest circle, which is family. In the past, whenever my mother asked me to come home, I always said that I was very busy. It was a lie that I told to hide my condition, because when I’d been honest, things got worse as a result of the negative responses I often received. As time went on, there was no choice but to start opening up and communicating my condition in a good way, without the conflicts that we had always faced since I was little.
I’m very grateful because I’ve been at the point where I can be myself fully in front of my friends, family, and clients. I’m no longer ashamed to talk about my condition when I’m powerless against depression, eating disorder, delusions, and the noises in my head. I keep reassuring others that this is indeed an episode I have to go through, and it is only temporary. My mental disability is indeed my medical condition, but it doesn’t define the whole I am, because there are rights and obligations that must be fulfilled. I have the right to access proper mental health services, to get protection from stigma and discrimination, to express myself, to be heard, to be seen, and to have equal opportunities. Finally, that positive support exists in my family circle. Plus, when they appreciate the art that I produce, it has totally empowered me. I never expected to be able to bring this conversation to the surface, considering this was something we previously considered very taboo and embarrassing to talk about. At this point I can say that art has saved my life.
The relevant question when looking at the mainstream art ecosystem in Indonesia is: why does the “mainstream” often exclude disabled artists? Should we beg? Or should members of the “mainstream” try to break their conservative views in expanding their understanding to be able to involve disabled artists and focus on engagement and empowerment? In the end, it is about power that disabled people are rarely involved in making decisions and are oppressed through poverty, lack of access, lack of equal opportunities, and prejudice that has been developed in society. Most of disabled folks don’t have equal access to training, mentoring, or hands-on practice, so their abilities are not honed.
“Nothing about us without us.” People with lived experience know best what we need, so we should be involved when planning an inclusive program. Also disabled artists are often being asked to do something for nothing. Ableism exists by making us less valued and less appreciated just because our different conditions and needs are seen as something lower than non-disabled people.
The future of the art world will increasingly connect digital and physical forms that will help us reach a wider audience. This transformation requires art industry players to adapt more quickly than has often previously been the case. Art practitioners must continue to hold internet-based public discussions to roll out policy recommendations for the government and power holders to support artists in providing us with equal and fair access. The government must provide internet access in remote areas so that people no longer feel left out, can get information, and gain a greater understanding of the world. I hope that hybrid innovations can continue to be developed to create an inclusive arts ecosystem that accommodates interaction, dialogue, creativity, education, and relaxation at all possible levels.
“Disability Futures in the Arts” is supported by the Canada Council for the Arts/Conseil des arts du Canada.
About the Author
Hana Alfikih, well known as Hana Madness, is a visual artist based in Jakarta, Indonesia. In 2012 she took first step in voicing mental health issues in various media in Indonesia based on her life experiences as a mentally disabled person by using art as a means to increase public awareness of mental health issue and the things that surround it. She has been working and collaborating with various people from diverse backgrounds, both in the context of disability and non-disability, both nationally and internationally, including with famous brands and big companies as well as with groups including health professionals until vulnerable young and adults to challenge how mental health is overcome, treated, experienced, and understood. She was nominated as “Top 10 Most Shinning Young Indonesian Artists” in 2017 by Detik.com. As “1 of 90 Young Indonesians with Inspiring Works and Thoughts” in 2018 by Opini.id. As a “Millenial Hero” for arts and culture in 2019 by Sindonews. As “10 Women of The Year” in 2019 by Her World Magazine. Also as “11 Inspiring Figures” by Tatler Asia. Follow her on Instagram at: https://www.instagram.com/hanamadness/, and visit her website at: https://hanamadness.art/.