this exhibition is igniting a conversation about mental health among black women
'Unmasked Women' is sparking a much-needed discussion about mental health within the Black British community.
In the UK, we've slowly started to recognize mental health as a serious problem, but getting help is easier for some than others. A lack of research and education means many don't realize the cultural effects on mental health for black women. From dealing with beauty standards to cultural differences and racial oppression, there are a lot of pressures that just aren't considered. That's why projects like Unmasked Women are so important.
Founded by 24-year-old Nicole Crentsil, Unmasked Women is bringing together artists to explore what it means to be a Black British female; its first exhibition will focus on mental health. Aiming to spark a much-needed conversation, the show will document the works of ten talented artists, as well as host a range of talks, live artwork, and spoken word performances to create a safe platform for discussion. Ahead of the exhibition, Crentsil sat down with two artists from the show — Juliana Kasumu and Heather Agyepong — to talk about the importance of bringing black female mental health into the spotlight.
What are you trying to achieve with Unmasked Women?
Nicole Crentsil: I want Unmasked Women to be more than just an exhibition. It could be a collective, where we encourage further communication and kick-start conversations. It's important to give people some understanding about black mental health, because it's very different to mental health in other communities and is often overlooked. [It involves] cultural differences, religious oppression, racism, and all the things that amount to what a woman living in Britain may experience.
Heather Agyepong: I think things like Unmasked Women encourage people to talk and be more open with their friends and their families rather than kind of shut it out.
How do you think gender and race affect mental health?
N: I think men and women are oppressed differently when it comes to both race and mental health. Even looking at the Black Lives Matter movement, it was two black women that started it in defense of black men. But there's never been a form of movement by black men, for black women. I've been doing research into charities and local organizations and the majority of them have already been doing work with black men; I questioned why they weren't involving black women. I discovered when it comes to how the government funds issues relating to mental health, black men are seen more deserving because they are heavily prosecuted in the UK. There doesn't seem a need to help us.
H: I think a lot of black women feel that they can't show any sort of weakness because the perception of us is that we're strong, we're resilient, and any kind of opposed narrative can jeopardize black women. A lot of the time, we don't talk about it until it's too late. There are a lot of black women in primary care units, but the statistics aren't readily shown because it doesn't fit with this kind of matriarchal perception of us.
Do you think the media impacts mental health?
H: When looking at the media, do you ever see a vulnerable black woman? We're always strong, feisty, sassy, or comedic but we're never vulnerable and delicate. However, when you look at the perception of white women in media, there's a multiplicity of narratives of them being fragile and misunderstood. I think those societal narratives very much impact how we express ourselves, so I think that's why it's particular to black women and mental health. We can be strong but we can also be weak, and we can also be depressed. It sounds ridiculous saying it because it's obvious but people really don't understand that.
J: I think a lot of my mental issues have come from self-image, and the media has a lot to do with that too. To have your makeup and body look a certain way — adverts like Herbal Essences with long silky hair don't reflect everyone.
N:I think it was quite interesting how you've represented these really detailed elaborate beautiful hairstyles in your work, Juliana, that are outlandish, in your face and evocative. It kind of challenges western cultures ideals of hairstyles.
J: Through technology, there's this resurgence of these hairstyles because we have tutorials teaching women how to manage their hair; [there's] insight and information that they had no idea about. Before there was not much access or communication, it was just going to your family. Our society is seeing that come back and that is such a beautiful thing.
What have your personal experiences been like?
J: Being Nigerian and being born in Britain, there was this understated tone that I found: when you have these personal issues, you stay strong about it. When I was dealing with depression and feeling lonely, it never made sense to my parents. When I finally had a conversation with them about it, they blamed things like me becoming too western and feeling maybe if I grew up in Nigeria I wouldn't be like this.
H: The ages of 16 and 19 were probably the worst for me. It was only when it got really bad and was told I had to leave my sixth form that I realized they just didn't accept it. They'd say 'oh it will just go, don't worry about it, just shake it off,' and I didn't really get any support. I told my mom and she simply said: 'just pray, it will be fine.'
N: My mom said the same thing to me, it was always the idea that I should speak to my pastor and go to church more. I wasn't born in Britain, I was born in Ghana and so were my parents — the first generation coming over here. There was little understanding of things relating to mental health and the idea of being unable to control your mind means somebody else is. To a lot of really religious people, that's bad. That was pushed on me a lot — to go to church more — but it wasn't helpful; it wasn't something I needed.
J: Even with my work, it's enlightening my parents and people around me to have understanding. It's easy to blame the issues on ignorance or naivety but sometimes it's our job to guide others who are unaware of the circumstances of black women, to help them to understand rather than get frustrated.
H: Yeah, I think it's not knowing how to handle it. I was 19 and in the hospital because it got really bad and my mom just started bursting out crying. We kind of hold it in; we're not encouraged in any kind of environment to talk about it. It's kind of like we have this supernatural ability to just hold in these things.
N: My mother suffered with depression while I was in college, so her mind-set changed from a traditional third generation African to experiencing this herself and realizing that these issues are real, that helped. It's not a Westernized thing, it's a human thing. Her going through that experience allowed me to talk about my experiences to a degree where I didn't feel ashamed and I didn't have to go to my pastor to get answers. We talk with each other, but I don't feel like everyone else has that — a lot of people do grow up with very strict African households.
What can be done to make things better for black British females?
H: There needs to be major investment in mental health facilities. I did my psychology degree and we didn't once touch on how culture affects mental health. The issues I experienced were because I saw myself as a black woman wasn't correlating with how I was feeling — that was major. In the years I had therapy, we never spoke about that. It's re-education, I think. When we talk about mental health and black mental health, I hope it's not just a fad that we talk about it for a year then forget about. It's a constant dialogue that requires investment in projects like this.
J: I think it's really important to have these dialogues within our families, our communities, and within our schools. School is a place where you grow up and spend more time than you do at home. Hopefully better dialogue is being had in after school clubs that reinforce positive imagery.
N: Totally agree. I think one thing is really important is changing mind-sets across the board. The government invest a lot of money into education around sexual health and normalizing it. I want mental health to be at that level. So if people have issues, they know it's okay to not to be okay. Anything relating to your health is important. We need to invest more inrealizing that you getting a broken arm and the severity of fixing it is the same as you having mental health issues.
Unmasked Women runs September 2-4 at The Artworks Elephant.
Text Lula Ososki