SICK! Living with Invisible Illness. An exhibition at Sun Pier House Chatham | By Lisa Richardson
By Laurie A Poole, on 31 October 2017
Ok, hands up! This blog post is not about intellectual disability per say, but more broadly about stigma experienced in a number of contexts by people with invisible illnesses (intellectual disabilities are not illnesses and they are not always invisible, but sometimes they are).
I have been moved to write about this exhibition challenging the stigma experienced by people with invisible illnesses which I happened to visit in August of this year. The event was ‘Sick!’, an art exhibition at Sun Pier house in Chatham in Kent.
Art has a powerful way in many mediums to express person, place and experience, which is exactly what SICK! did so powerfully. I cannot do justice here to the many conditions, artists and mediums of expression at the exhibition and so I have chosen to highlight just two pieces that resonated with me the most – view all the exhibited pieces at https://www.instagram.com/sickexhibition/
The most visually arresting piece for me was Paiñata, produced in a workshop for the opening of the exhibition. This grey cloud piñata was covered with true stories of the difficulties and negative experiences associated with invisible illness. Inside, instead of sickly sweets was placed colourful things and positive messages. At the opening of the exhibition the grey cloud Paiñata was smashed open to release the bright spectrum of positive colour, words and objects. The broken Paiñata for me was a thing of greater beauty than its original form as it took the shape (in my eyes) of a flower. How good it must have felt to smash it open- a release of colour and emotion.
Broken as beautiful is also explored by Eleanor Kerr-Patton, who has used the Japanese technique of kintsugi which ‘treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise’. Eleanor’s jewellery seen here explores the taboos associated with talking about mental illness. This piece appealed to me as I like the idea of seeing the lines of repair as something to be celebrated and that it is not necessary to keep these hidden or make them invisible. We can place too much focus on perfection as beauty which ironically can itself lead to illness and the need to repair oneself from the inside out.
Whilst challenging in themselves, invisible illnesses can lead to further challenges imposed on the person through societal attitudes and expectations, such as that the person doesn’t look sick or ill, which can lead to an assumption that they are “putting it on”, or conditions may feel trivialised through everyday narratives of those who are not ill, such as the commonly heard ‘I’m being a bit OCD today’. But more than this there are battles to fight in socio-political arenas for benefits, accessibility and rights. That some liberation from this can be felt through expression and exhibitions like Sick! is to be welcomed. That it provides a forum for education, conversations and challenging stigma deserves to be shared and celebrated.