The topic of mental health has long been overlooked across parts of Africa. Lack of information and stigma attached to mental health problems have impacted their recognition and treatment, but these African photographers are turning their lens on the issue and using their art to tackle it head-on.
High prevalence and low treatment rates: this is the story of mental health in Africa. Africa is a prime breeding ground for mental health disorders, including those arising from poverty, disease, migration, racism and violent conflict, to name just a few. Yet despite the symptoms, mental health facilities are few and far between, with fewer than 0.07 psychiatrists per 100,000 people in Africa, compared with 7.43 in Europe.
Ignorance and stigma are the principal roadblocks to progress. Many sufferers don’t realise they have mental health problems, and few know that they can be treated. Those who are aware often eschew treatment for fear of being ostracised in their community, or being seen as weak, crazy or even bewitched.
Addressing these views is no easy task, especially when the target audience holds traditional beliefs and literacy rates are low. However, art can tackle subjects in ways that other forms can’t, and these seven African photographers are using their cameras to start a much-needed conversation on this delicate topic.
From the Plateau State conflicts to Boko Haram’s insurgency, Nigerians have witnessed more than their fair share of violence in the past 20 years. Torture, murder and displacement are not easily forgotten, and many of the victims have suffered in silence ever since.
Etinosa Yvonne Osayimwen is aiming to change that. With her series It’s All in My Head, Osayimwen aims to help people who have suffered these traumas open up about their experiences, noting, “Nobody really talks to them about how they are coping.” By listening to “the events and memories that have been stuck in their heads”, Osayimwen learns what each survivor has done to try to move forward, before superimposing this over their portraits using a double-exposure technique.
Accra-based photographer Eric Gyamfi uses his camera to convey the complex intricacies of Ghanaian social life, looking in particular at themes of belonging. Having achieved notoriety for his ongoing study of Ghana’s LGBT community, Just Like Us, Gyamfi recently turned his lens to an even-more-stigmatised strata of West African society: witches.
JK Rowling may have improved the perception of witches in Western society, but being accused of witchcraft in Ghana is still serious business, with women being banished to live in a segregated witch camp away from their families and friends. Their mental health is no doubt shaped by the stigmatisation and isolation inflicted upon them by their communities, forcing many of them to live in these camps even after being proved innocent. In The Old Ladies of Gambaga, Gyamfi highlights their resilience in a series of portraits. He says, “These women, broken as they were from their individual traumatic experiences, pressed on daily with such resilience and beauty, in the face of all the devastation that engulfed them inside out. It was this beauty and strength I wanted to paint back to them.”
British-Ghanaian artist Heather Agyepong uses a series of staged self-portraits to shed light on ‘black trauma’. Drawing on historical figures and her own experiences, she combats the negative impacts of racism and feelings of inadequacy.
In her series Yaa, for example, Agyepong evokes the spirit of Yaa Asantewaa, a female warrior from Ghana who led a rebellion against British colonialism in 1900, highlighting her confidence and drive in the face of oppression. Meanwhile, in Too Many Blackamoors, Agyepong reimagines the story of Lady Sarah Forbes Bonetta, Queen Victoria’s adopted West African goddaughter, who went to live in England as a girl in the 19th century. Imagining how Lady Sarah must have felt living away from her roots allowed Agyepong to deal with racist events that happened to her while travelling in Europe.
Agyepong aims for a “cathartic experience for both herself and the viewer”, and her work has impacted her community, with the artist acknowledging, “My friendship groups never used to speak about [mental health] five years ago and now we talk about it quite regularly; I can actually feel a shift.”
Tsoku Maela grew up thinking that mental health disorders were ‘white people problems’. Looking back, the Cape Town-based artist laments how “mental illness in black communities is often misunderstood, misdiagnosed or completely ignored” and feels that now is the time to “start the process of unlearning and re-educating the African community”. His weapon? The camera.
A sufferer from depression and anxiety himself, Maela put together a photographic series, Abstract Peaces, that documents his own struggle with mental health in a series of 22 conceptual self-portraits. The photos aim to convey the range of emotions he felt, but this time in a positive light. Instead of highlighting the negativity, he seeks to inspire mental health sufferers to find beauty in their struggles, as “depression is not all doom and gloom”.
His work has received international attention, but his target audience doesn’t tend to visit galleries or read online reviews. And so he has started to take his work to the streets of South Africa to get his message across, claiming, “Ignorance is knowing the truth and choosing to look away. What we are dealing with here is a lack of knowledge on the subject.”
Another Cape Town-based photographer tackling the issue of depression is Thembela “Nymless” Ngayi. Like Maela, Ngayi “used to think depression was a fictional condition that people used as an excuse to get out of work”. However, after suffering bouts of depression himself, during which he “lost interest in everything”, he wanted to break the taboo.
He created a series of portraits titled Depression: The Great African Horror Story, which examines the effects of depression through a set of monochromatic images featuring a black man and woman: the former suffering from depression, the latter affected by the man’s suffering. It aims to raise awareness of the impact of mental health and encourage people to seek treatment.
Sufferers of mental health disorders in Benin are not only misunderstood but often socially ostracised. To counter ideas that those with mental health issues are either weak or crazy, photographer Louis Oké Agbo created a montage of portraits depicting mentally ill people bonding with their environment; the earthy textures are designed to show his subjects are “woven into the fabric of society” and should not be outcast. After completing his series, Agbo toured Benin with the images in order to increase understanding of mental health problems, while also raising money to help his subjects.
Niyi Okeowo is a multidisciplinary designer and photographer from Lagos, Nigeria, who uses portrait photography to indulge his “passion for mental health”. Targeting issues such as pain and happiness in his subjects, Okeowo harnesses the power of social media to “boost the message and the positivity”, maintaining that “social media is basically an online therapist room”. He may have a point. His fellow countryfolk have taken to blogs to credit Okeowo’s championing of mental health with giving them the strength to open up about their personal issues.
Wednesday 10 October is World Mental Health Day. To highlight this, Culture Trip is looking at how different societies are shining a light on this important issue in innovative and alternative ways.
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If you are experiencing mental health issues, in the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email email@example.com. You can contact the mental health charity Mind by calling 0300 123 3393 or visiting mind.org.uk. Please note there are no affiliations of any kind between the aforementioned organisations and Culture Trip.