As part of our temporary weekly programme Under Construction, every Friday Bethlem Gallery present artists’ work through film & video screenings, conversations, resources and online projects.
This week we have invited artist, writer and activist Dolly Sen to write about her experience of curating the exhibition ‘Art & Protest: What’s there to be mad about?‘ at Bethlem Gallery last year and her perspective on our current crisis.
Installation view of Art & Protest: What’s there to be mad about?, placard by Dolly Sen
By Dolly Sen
In 2019 Bethlem Gallery was both kind and foolish enough to offer me my first opportunity to curate an exhibition. I chose to put on a group exhibition on protest and activism in mental health. I had loads of amazing artists, such as Vince Laws and the vacuum cleaner, who contributed artworks and protest ephemera, and there were performances during my tenure by Hamja Ahsan, and myself, and an evening event celebrating the infamous mental health festival Bonkersfest at the Dragon Café. I called the exhibition ‘Art & Protest: What’s there to be mad about?’ The title of the show was easy to come up with. ‘What’s there to be mad about?’ has more than one question within it, referring both to what there is to be angry about in the world and what in society is enough to drive you insane. This was an exhibition applauding the people who rise up against what has hurt them, whether it be psychiatric coercion, benefit cut deaths, austerity, or any other form of oppression. Art & Protest: What’s there to be mad about? was a celebration and acknowledgement of the role of art in political activism by those who take a stand.
I am extremely proud of that exhibition, and loved every part of it. I loved being surrounded by the work of many artists I respect and admire. I loved learning new skills and meeting new people. I loved the team at Bethlem, who were nurturing and so definitely in my corner, I felt like I could take on the whole world. I loved the response of visitors to the gallery. Emily Reynolds, a writer, reviewed the show and said, “The first time I walked into the Bethlem Gallery’s Art & Protest exhibition, I nearly cried. A collection of artwork curated by Dolly Sen, the show takes a piercing, unwavering look at what oppression looks like – and how we can fight it. The result is something incredibly special.”
It seemed the world was my oyster. Then Covid-19 came along…
2020 was going to be my year. Opportunities were flooding in. I had commissions from Euro 2020, the Brain Festival, Coventry City of Culture, amongst others, and loads of other plans thrown in. The week following lockdown, most of those commissions were cancelled or postponed. Lockdown was necessary, my current poverty is not. In my view, lockdown should have been done earlier to save more lives, but I don’t think people will look back favourably on our government’s handling of this period of history. Some of the mishandling is obvious, such as lack of PPE for medical and care workers, and confusing, riddle-like pronouncements from our prime minister, but what is less obvious or not deemed important, is how this crisis has both exposed and exacerbated the inequalities that exist in our society. It is the working class that are the key workers and at risk of catching the virus. It is the people on zero-hour contracts who cannot refuse to work in an unsafe environment lest they lose their precarious source of income. It is people from BAME communities who are more likely to die from this virus but are they offered more protection? No, many are frontline workers. The Coronavirus Bill has suspended the Care Act which means local authorities don’t need to help disabled people and children, and sectioning us mad people is easier, we can be locked up indefinitely. Let’s not forget, many disabled people won’t have the right to their own lives when ventilators are given to the non-disabled because our health service is underfunded and can’t afford to save everyone. I said last year in the exhibition: our breath is just as necessary as yours. We seem to be fighting harder for that breath.
Not only that, the ‘normals’ are seeing for themselves that if you isolate people, cut off their access to work, leisure, and places, and reduce their rights and freedom, and make their futures uncertain, mental health takes a battering. They have seen there is plenty to be mad about. I would love this crisis to have some positive outcomes, that people are more empathic with those of us who have been distressed longer, and generally do something about the inequalities in our society. The ‘normals’ may change the world for the better or they might not.
It is up to us to ensure our voices aren’t missing from this time. Our lives should be part of the story of these times. That’s why I am creating, and that is why you should too. Say something, do something that will be part of your story. Don’t worry about productivity, just do it. The world has changed, change it into something you want to. Show the world our lives are beautiful too, and if they try to diminish that beauty, make it bigger, make it bolder. Fight, fight for your right to be. The future is uncertain. Make your own road, don’t let others tell you how to travel.
I said last year of my exhibition. “This exhibition will honour our right to be ourselves and to be treated with humanity and respect, and even our right to stay alive, by using art to confront, to embolden ourselves with, to stand tall, and to show others they are not alone.”
We need that now more than ever.
About Dolly Sen
As a child, Dolly Sen was an alien in Empire Strikes Back. She knew then she would never know normal life. Her journey as an artist has taken her up a tree in Regents Park, to California’s Death Row, to the Barbican, Tower Bridge and the Royal Academy, Trafalgar Square, and up a ladder to screw a lightbulb into the sky.
Dolly’s creativity aims to put reality over her lap and slap its naughty arse.
Dolly is an award-winning writer, artist, performer and filmmaker. She has had 10 books published. Her subversive blogs around art, disability and humour have a huge international following www.disabilityartsonline.org.uk/dolly_sen_blog. Since 2004 she has exhibited and performed internationally. More recently she has been working on her Section 136 project. Section 136 is a radical mental health art-action programme where madness is questioned, and institutional monsters are confronted using art, love, rage and sheep. Read more about it at www.section136.co.uk