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'We show 'outsider art' to the world'

In 1986, Dr Guislain Museum was founded by the Brothers of Charity, in memory of Belgium’s first psychiatrist Joseph Guislain. Currently, the museum is exhibiting a show on the history of mental health and outsider art in collaboration with the Tata Institute of Social Science (TISS) at the Institute of Contemporary India Art at Kala Ghoda. Titled Breaking the Chains of Stigma, all the works on display are by mentally-ill patients from across the world and date as early as the beginning of the 20th century.


(L to R) Patrick Allegaert and Bart Marius from Dr Guislain Museum in Belgium were in Mumbai recently for a show on mental health and outsider art. Pics/Bipin Kokate

Also, the museum and pharmaceutical company Jannsen Research and development awards an individual, project or organisation that has made an exceptional contribution in reducing the stigma associated with mental illness. The Dr Guislain Breaking the Chains of Stigma Award worth USD 50,000 is awarded annually on World Mental Health Day. This year, Bagus Utomo from Jakarta, who founded KPSI, an organisation to help people suffering from schizophrenia won this honour.


The artist of this sculpture from the early 20th century suffered from a mental illness. To combat the visions in his head, he created an empire and proclaimed himself the emperor. The work reflects creativity and extent of his imagination

On a sunny Friday, I walk into the gallery to interview Artistic Director Patrick Allegaert and Curator Bart Marius of the museum in Ghent, Belgium, curious to know what connection the exhibition has with India. I return, amazed to learn, that among other things, some treatments are more effective in India than abroad, because they involve the patients’ families. Excerpts from the interview:

Tell us about Dr Guislain Museum.
Patrick: The museum, which is government funded, is built on the premise of the first psychiatry hospital in Belgium. Spread across 4,000 square feet, it conducts lectures and programmes in education, and hosts thematic art exhibitions.

Photographs from the early 18th and early 20th century and films on psychiatry are on display. We also collect art work from patients. Some of the works are from the beginning of the 20th century. All the works are displayed in the old rooms and dormitory of this heritage structure. Here, we attempt to show what the situation was before the evolution of electro-shock.

The museum also organises theme exhibitions. In November this year, there will be an exhibition on war and trauma to mark 100 years of the first World War. Here, we will display Gond art by the Dalit community in India, representing death trauma.

Bart: When the museum first opened, it had a small collection, as it was an era where society was not interested in the science of psychiatry. The idea of dealing with mental illness did not exist, but today we understand the importance of understanding the past to better the present and future.
Our work involves procuring works from untrained mentally ill patients to give them a platform. The works on display are not on sale. We only showcase the art as an outlet of expression for the patients.

Do you plan to take this exhibition to other cities?
Yes, we are working on it. We hope to take the exhibition to Delhi and Bangalore, and even Pune, which hosts the Indian psychiatry conference. Around 4,000 doctors will be visiting next year.

What is outsider art?
Patrick:Works done by psychiatric patients fall in the category of psychotic art and are also termed as ‘schizophrenic masters’. The museum shows also works by people who live in isolation. Such art largely falls in the outsider art category. It is an attempt to give them more place in the artist world.

Whenever we take a work from a patient, they are always paid for the work to help them in life, or buy more material for their art works. The idea is to appreciate the artwork created as a result of their imagination and inner voices they hear because of their condition. Sometimes, when such an artist takes medication, the works are not interesting anymore.

Bart: Over the years, many philosophers believe that works of mentally ill patients should not be displayed. But we believe that when you show outsider art to the society, it creates awareness and helps dissolve the stigma associated with mental illness and its patients. We don’t talk about their illness. We talk about the art.

How has your experience in Mumbai been so far?
Bart: We are very happy to showcase some of the works in India. I came here 10 days ago and realised that the story of the history of psychiatry and the stigma associated in India is similar to the situation in Europe. The stigma of death and sickness still exists in both countries. Pyschiatry has more to do with culture than biology. I was talking to someone who works closely with Autism in Delhi and learnt that compared to America, where the individual is treated, here it is linked to the surrounding environment of the child and the family is part of the treatment. This often speeds up the treatment. I was fascinated to know that.

How much progress has the world made when it comes to dealing with mental illnesses?
Patrick: In the first part of the 20th century institutions isolated mental patients from the society. In the last 25 years, there has been progress in terms of including the patients into the community, be it through art therapy, government initiatives and social awareness. Now, the treatment has become more individual-oriented.

What role does the museum play toward mental health?
Patrick: When people see the works done by mentally-ill patients, and notice the moving and vivid voices and pictures of their imagination, they realise that mentally-ill patients have talent and use art as a medium of expression. We never say this or that is the story, we want to compare different points of view. Science is the truth. We want to show how art reflects the imagination of the outsider artists. The exhibition will move to TISS in Deonar after it ends on October 27 at the ICAI. 

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