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African Visual Artists Raising Mental Health Awareness

"The Value of Nothing", 2018
"The Value of Nothing", 2018 | Courtesy of the artist
To mark World Mental Health Day, Culture Trip celebrates the work of five visual artists from Africa whose work creates awareness surrounding mental health issues on the continent.

Mental health problems often go untreated, with as many as one in four of us suffering from them each year. Often it’s difficult to tell when our mental health is in jeopardy. In most cases it’s the stigma that prevents people from speaking out or seeking support. This discrimination towards mental health issues can be found across Africa, where it’s often the older generation who see mental illnesses as a ‘Western disease’.

But times are changing, and a new generation seeks different ways to better understand the human experience. Artists of varied disciplines are using their skills and creativity to address mental health issues and to help others heal through the power of art and expression. Here are five visual artists from Africa who are taking on the challenge of raising awareness of mental health issues.

Nosipho Nxele

Nosipho Nxele is a self-taught illustrator and art director based in Johannesburg, South Africa. In her 2016 series Mental Squad, she discusses depression, anxiety and spirituality and uses a surrealist illustration technique to demonstrate the different stages of depression a woman can go through. It was based on her own experience of long unresolved mental health issues that left her bitter, broken and panic-stricken. Her use of colours was specific to the piece: the pink background represents a woman’s innocence, the black the cloud of depression and the white the peace the victim longs for. Nxele now sees the creative process of illustrating as a means of healing and repairing the deep emotional scars left by her depression.

Eloghosa Osunde

Eloghosa Osunde is a Nigerian writer and visual artist whose work revolves around the topics of mental health, sexuality and identity. She’s an alumnus of the Farafina Creative Writing Workshop (2015) and the Caine Prize Workshop (2018), and her visual series And Now We Have Entered Broken Earth has been exhibited across the globe and was selected for the New York Times Portfolio Review and Photoville’s EmergiCubes. In Color This Brain, a six-part photographic series that demonstrates her consciousness of mental health, she sees her different emotional states in various colours and tones. She says of the project, “I know the exact colour and texture of my depression and my anxiety, my dissociation and my exhaustion. I know the flatness and madness and sharpness of all, the pace at which they breathe behind the eyes.”

Nobukho Nqaba

Nobukho Nqaba is a 26-year-old performance artist from Butterworth in the Eastern Cape in South Africa. She graduated from the Michaelis School of Fine Art in Cape Town in 2012, and her work is inspired by deeply personal experiences. In 2016 Nqaba performed Ndiyayekelela (Letting Go) at the Also Known as Africa art fair in Paris. Although not directly addressing the single issue of mental health, her performance relays her feelings of loss and identity as she struggles to come to terms with the loss of her father. Nqaba uses objects such as overalls and blankets to symbolise the belongings her father left behind and to address an internal struggle as she wrestles with feelings of guilt, fondness and confusion.

'Ndinikezela (Battle)' performed by Nobukho Nqaba Courtesy of the artist
'Ndinikezela (Battle)' performed by Nobukho Nqaba Courtesy of the artist
'Ndinikezela (Battle)' performed by Nobukho Nqaba Courtesy of the artist

Ken Nwadiogbu

Ken Nwadiogbu is a 24-year-old multidisciplinary artist from Nigeria whose hyperrealistic drawings illustrate global events and their effects on the human experience. The self-taught artist sees his work as being an emotive means of creating discussion surrounding sociopolitical structures and issues in society. His artistry is driven by a desire to change the way people think about themselves and the society in which they live. One of his pieces, inspired by the #MeToo movement, was even covered by CNN Africa. After receiving so much positive feedback on his incredibly poignant composition, he realised his role as “an activist on canvas”, lending his creative hand to uplift the voices of those who are shunned or overlooked by society.

"Me Too" 2018 Courtesy of the artist

With his realistic drawing The Value of Nothing, Nwadiogbu challenges his audience to see depression and suicidal thoughts as what happens when we base our value on what other people think of us, and a lack of self-awareness and self-appreciation.

"The Value of Nothing", 2018 Courtesy of the artist

Courage in Congo Project

The Courage in Congo project was started in 2015 as a 14-week psychosocial programme for a community of adolescent girls living in Goma, in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. It was directed by an arts educator and a specialist in behavioural health sciences who sought to help improve the mental health of these girls, who live in a community affected by prevalent sexual and gender-based violence. Together Christina Mallie and Nadia Fazal studied the community leaders’ perceptions of girls and their role in society and worked towards changing these perceptions through art and positive affirmation. With the belief that art has a therapeutic and transformative power, the girls decorated the walls of their neighbourhoods with murals based on the themes ‘Women in the Workforce’ and ‘The Development and Promotion of Women in Leadership’.

A section of the "Development and Promotion of Women Leadership" mural, April 2016 Courtesy of Colors of Connection
The participants and project staff in front of the “Women in the workforce” mural, April 2016. Courtesy of Colors of Connection

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.

The content of this article is provided for general information only and is not an attempt to practise medicine or give specific medical advice, including, without limitation, advice concerning the topic of mental health. The information contained in this article is for the sole purpose of being informative and is not to be considered complete, and does not cover all issues related to mental health. Moreover, this information should not replace consultation with your doctor or other qualified mental health providers and/or specialists. If you believe you or another individual is suffering a mental health crisis or other medical emergency, please seek medical attention immediately.

If you are experiencing mental health issues in the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or jo@samaritans.org. 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.