We caught up with the brilliant Ifeyinwa Frederick of Grey Matters to talk about her upcoming exhibition on mental health and perceptions. The exhibition, in collaboration with Hanna Remz Curation, opens tomorrow, and the private viewing is on Friday evening. Through the work of Grey Matters, Frederick and her team are putting mental health at the forefront of discussions and challenging perceptions.
What’s the Grey Matters story? How and why was it founded?
Grey Matters was originally a play that I put on whilst at university and, like most of my ideas, it stemmed from frustration. Frustration over the numbers of people I knew that were experiencing a mental health problem in an environment where nobody was talking about mental health. I wanted to put on a play to break the silence. So, I roped in my dear friend Josh and nine months later it was the opening night of our immersive theatre production.
After the feedback from the show, I didn’t just want to stop there. I was aware that as successful as the show had been, it had only impacted on the Cambridge community. But the silence and stigma surrounding mental health problems was, and still is not, just a Cambridge issue. But I wasn’t sure what my next move would be until I received an anonymous note in my pigeonhole, the upshot of which was that through the sharing of people’s stories, the play had helped this individual not feel so alone.
And that’s when I decided what I would do. I would curate people’s experiences of mental illness and disseminate them, originally as a book, but I soon decided a blog would be a better way to start. I put the idea to one side in order to concentrate on my finals and the very day my exams finished, I began working on the blog.
What is Perception, the exhibition all about? What sparked the idea?
It came about through a chance conversation with my friend Hannah who is behind Hannah Remz Curation, the organisation Grey Matters has partnered with for the event. I’d already been thinking that on my return to London (I was living in the Caribbean at the time) that I wanted to hold a mental health-related event. And I remember talking to Hannah who mentioned that she wanted to curate a mental health-themed exhibition that summer. It was therefore natural for us to partner up.
Let’s talk about the notion of perception – how did you decide on this as your theme? Why?
There’s a massive gap between the perception of mental illness and the reality and it’s this lack of understanding that underpins the stigma and makes living with a mental illness more difficult than it needs to be. In that respect, when looking to put on an anti-stigma art exhibition, perception is the obvious theme.
Photo Credit: Jacob V Joyce www.jacobvjoyce.com
What are the links between mental health and art? Are there any?
I think there is a link between creativity and mental health but I am wary of this connection being romanticised. Many brilliant pieces of art, both visual and performative, have been made by artists battling inner demons but I don’t like the suggestion that you must suffer for your art in this way. As a creative, I think it’s an unhealthy narrative to propagate.
What made you decide to take your online work offline and manifest that offline work in the form of an exhibition as opposed to workshops for example?
I always imagined that we would do offline work when setting up the blog. It just so happened that when we launched I was going to be out of the country for the best part of a year.
I think workshops are great and they serve a particular purpose but with a workshop you’re only ever preaching to the choir. If I put on a “talking about mental health” workshop tomorrow, attendees are going to be those who are probably already talking about it.
One of the great things about the play was that it attracted people who were not just interested in mental health issues but people that love the theatre too. For me, if ever I’m doing an event about mental health and I want people to attract people with no interest in the subject, I have to ask myself, if I take away the focus on mental health, why would somebody come? So with Grey Matters, it was because it was a new, immersive theatre show. With Perception, it’s because it’s showcasing artwork by some really talented artists. , it’s through putting on entertaining, exciting, high quality creative events which explore themes of mental illness that we can get people to engage with these issues and I wholeheartedly believe the arts has a huge role to play in the mental health discussion.
Tell us about (some of) the artists exhibiting their work
To someone who struggles to draw a straight line without a ruler, the artists are incredibly talented individuals. Each time I get sent an example piece of their work, I rejoice a little. It’s difficult for me to talk about them as a group, as they are all quite different but nor would I want to talk about just one or two as I think they are all deserving of recognition.
There are seven of them in total from across London and Birmingham and they range from those who make art for a living and those who do it as a hobby. But all of them, whether consciously or not, through their work, are dismantling the myth that someone with a mental health problem must be defined by their illness.
As a black woman, why is mental health an important issue to you? Why does it need to be addressed openly and honestly?
We fundamentally live in a world hostile to our existence. Even if the people around you love you for who you are and nurture you, you don’t have to look fair to see a sister being attacked, verbally and physically. I don’t know a young black woman, who hasn’t struggled with self-acceptance because society told her that her lips were too big, her hair too frizzy and her skin too dark. When you are surrounded by a constant but subtle stream of negativity like that, you become increasingly vulnerable.
And yet here is the crux. For many black women, we have been taught not to show our vulnerability. If you’re not attacking us, then the black woman you love best is a strong black woman. The black woman who is able to take hit after hit and keep standing up. Show me that woman, and I’ll show you someone who has probably spent nights crying in silence. The strong black woman trope is a cage that I find oppressive and I think it prevents many of us for expressing, articulating and addressing how we feel.
We have got caring for our loved ones down. We’ve been doing it for years. But our challenge now is to learn to care for ourselves. Self-care is something that we all need to get better at, but especially the black female activist. You cannot continue to fight battle after battle without taking time to let yourself recover in between.
Will the exhibition be touring in the future?
This is just a one-off exhibition but it won’t be the last event from Grey Matters nor the last exhibition by Hannah Remz Curation.
Exhibition Opening Times and Details
What can we expect next for Grey Matters?
Sadly, we’ll be saying bye to the name Grey Matters shortly. Readers should look out for our new name over the coming months. It’s a change we’re making in order to enable us to undertake more projects offline. The blog will still run but we are planning to do more events, from workshops and conferences to larger scale performing arts events. As I said, I’m a huge believer in using the arts to start important conversations so don’t be surprised if in the next 12 months you receive an invite from us to a mental-health related play or dance show.
We know you are multi-talented – Tell us about your other projects
I’ve recently set up a Nigerian-inspired tapas lounge with my brother and best friend. We’re called Chuku’s and we can be found over on Twitter @chukusldn. Our first pop-up event is on 23rd August and I’m excited. It’s an opportunity for me to explore my Nigerian heritage whilst sharing with others the rich culture I know the country has to offer. Tickets are selling quickly, so if you think it sounds interesting, don’t wait. Book now!
How can our readers get involved with your work?
We are always looking for contributors at Grey Matters. Whether you want to us to invite you about your experience or you want to write a short story, a poem or a personal account, get in touch. We are also looking for new team members. My ambitions for Grey Matters grow each day and to realise them we’re going to need more people. If there are any social media buffs out there, we want to hear from you. But if you have an expertise or passion in any field, I guarantee there’s a way we can use it. Either email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet us at @greymatters_uk