Healing Images: Exhibition Showcases Works by Art Therapy Patients

By MYINT MYAT THU 22 August 2019

At the opening night of “The Room”, an exhibition of paintings by mental health patients, a small group of artists were standing in front of a painting, looking amused. Suddenly, one of them took it down, then put it back. The same painting, but a different picture now—someone had just hung it right-side up.

The 70 eccentrically effortless, overly original pieces at the exhibition make up just one-sixth of the growing collection at the Aung Clinic. Medical doctor-turned-artist Dr. Aung Min and psychiatrist Dr. San San Oo—the husband and wife owners of the clinic—live in a home large enough for a family of four. But their nest is getting smaller as the number of paintings grows bigger after every weekly art therapy session. The canvases have begun to swallow up their living room. But the couple cannot bring themselves to discard a single picture, or dismiss any as “insane”.

“It would take many decades for an educated artist to get the same level of expression,” Tuula Mehtonen, the video-editing mentor at the Yangon Film School, told The Irrawaddy.

Virbatns paintings of mental health patients at JoZaSo, Substainable Tourism Hub.(Photo: The Irrawaddy)

Mehtonen was referring to untitled portrait of a female. The subject looks at once like a grey-faced, thin-lipped woman exuding the deformed joy of a younger soul, and a young girl with a ballooned body and big perfect circular eyes, staring into another’s eyes. Her presence seems threatened. So the artist Myo hides her in a background of playful rainbow colors.

“It figured out an extremely weak and vulnerable state of mind. We all have this hidden side in us. It was like a layer of myself behind many other layers,” added Mehtonen, who purchased the portrait at the exhibition.

Born in 1978, Myo has been suffering from a severe mental disorder since he was 18. The years he spent at the Ywar Thar Gyi Mental Hospital—including several rounds of Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT)—could not free him from his wild imagination.

“In psychiatric hospitals here, patients with severe illnesses are crammed in small rooms, which are like prison cells. Sometimes there are 20 to 30 people in one room, and some are chained and handcuffed,” Dr. San San Oo said. “They will be given one medication for anger. Another different one for depression. And another one for delusion. As their modes change, the medication changes. If someone who is sane didn’t go mad any minute there, that would be a miracle,” Dr. San San Oo told The Irrawaddy.

Nyo Min’s Win’s portraits of world famous icons.(Photo: The Irrawaddy)

Insanity can be a symptom of creativity, or it can be transformed into it. But for Dr. Aung Min, the goal of art therapy should never be “to freely give a madman a paintbrush and a canvas”, or the pursuit of today’s much coveted “creative” status. Rather, he wanted to create a room at the clinic—the “Room” of the exhibition’s title—which might be small but has unbounded emotional latitude to explore the uncharted territory of our minds, and where we can reconcile with ourselves through art. For Dr. Aung Min, this is where true creativity begins.

On the day Myo arrived at The Room housing the clinic’s art therapy program in 2012, he drew a picture of a person in the “anatomy drawing 101” style you might expect from a child in a nursery: a round-faced bony guy, standing up with his limbs stretched straight. Without his spiky locks he could easily be sexless.

Seven years on, Myo still draws exactly the same picture (his female portrait at the exhibition is a very rare creation) unfailingly on every art therapy day. But his spiky anatomy guy became more flamboyant as the medium changed from paper to canvas after the Open Society Foundation (OSF) funded the Aung Clinic’s community-based art therapy project in 2016.

Dr. Aung Min assisting his patients in painting in one of his art therapy sessions. (Photo: The Irrawaddy)

“My peer psychiatrists from abroad consider this repetition as something unique.
They believe that it carries their basic emotions, and that the way they interpret their suffering is very strong,” Dr. San San Oo explained.

Myo is not alone in that. Tin, who was once tormented by hallucinations of blood and guts, sees the canvas as a portal to visualize the face of an unnamed man. He later said that, in his mind, it is actually a sitting woman. His paintings, since 2015, usually have a single haunting color. Over a blank area, anxious brush strokes are applied to indicate eyebrows, eyes, mouth and nose.

Comic, but also confusing, his works even intimidate an established artist like Than Kyaw Htay. “I was thrown off by his colors. These paintings are subtle, yet arresting. For me, it is the not the physical color, but the color of the unconscious. To take these colors deep out of your mind and let them flow freely on the canvas is quite a daunting task for me, as an artist.” Than Kyaw Htay paused for a while, and said, “Honestly, it is frustrating even to imagine. It is very difficult to understand your feelings even when you can see them. But it is far more difficult to understand them through colors.”

Well-known artist Khin Zaw Latt, with 18 years of experience under his belt, can do nothing but acknowledge this hard reality. “With all the theories in your head after years of study and working, it is just near-impossible to keep them from interfering. It’s like you just can’t go back to the first days you drew as a kid.”

A group of mental health patients are seen, painting at the morning art therapy session.(Photo: The Irrawaddy)

Early on, Dr. Aung Min had an artist in his clinic to guide his patients. This only led to the realization that teaching patients rules, like color theory, is likely to turn a mildly insane person full-blown mad. Dr. Aung Min didn’t see himself as a potential art therapist until a foreign expert pointed out that he was made for the task. He is a physician, who tried his hand as a novelist, and a renowned screenwriter and filmmaker with a number of artistic pursuits. He could be overqualified in fact.

“The basic rule here is to never force patients to draw or to teach them. It they don’t want to, they can do other activities like writing poems, as long as it can put their mind on track, and it is silent,” Aung Min said.

“While doing art therapy, always get the final product out of your head. When you begin to worry if your painting is good, it will overtake your enjoyment of the process. We are stressed out by all the sensory controls when we are awake. So just let them go,” Khin Zaw Latt commented.

The funding of OSF will end in 2020. Dr. San San Oo hoped the positive outcomes they are now seeing will help to sustain The Room—and expand it—in the future. “Our patients are now convinced that they can express their feelings on the canvas. They might not be able to interpret everything at one sitting. But it encourages their potential eventually. Their sense of achievement and self-worth grow. These are the foundations of happiness,” she said with a smile.

It was an overcast evening in Chinatown, drizzling pleasantly. But inside the high-ceilinged heritage home a techicolor atmosphere prevailed at the opening event of “The Room”, with the artists mingling among visitors. Seen through the wide-framed windows from outside in the rain, every painting, unschooled and pure, was redolent of the triumph of humanity.

Dr. Aung Min at his art therapy session, The Room, opened at his home (Photo: The Irrawaddy)

For Mehtonen, Myo’s untitled portrait of a female reminded her of a song. “What comes to my mind when I watch this painting is Bob Dylan’s ‘Hard Rain’s A Gonna Fall’: ‘Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son, what have you seen…’” Mehtonen continues, “I hope he will keep painting.”

“The Room” exhibition is ongoing at JoSaZo, also known as the Sustainable Tourism Hub, on Bo Ywe Street (Upper Block), in Yangon’s Latha Township, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The organizers were unable to provide a specific time frame for the exhibition, but all the paintings are expected to be on display for a few more months.