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Ouditt maps mental health
The subject of mental health was thrust into the spotlight both abroad and in T&T by the mass murder at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, the release of the Academy award-nominated film Silver Linings Playbook (which features a number of characters with mental-health issues), and the Cheryl Miller incident.
All stirred conversations about emotional, psychological and social wellbeing. Artist Steve Ouditt engages with these concerns in his latest exhibition, Steve Ouditt Proceeds to Mental Health. His display of 133 drawings and collages will open to the public on March 7 at Medulla Art Gallery, Woodbrook. It is Ouditt’s first solo exhibition in Trinidad in 18 years.
The artist’s decision to create a body of work on mental health was catalysed by discussions with his childhood friend Dr Gerard Hutchinson, who is a professor of psychiatry at UWI. “We have wanted to work together for a long time. We wanted to create a platform to try to speak to a wide public. I am making the art and Hutchinson is helping to determine how we use the proceeds from the exhibit, whether it is to create a publication, develop a project that we can take regionally and internationally or do a number of shows on art and medicine,” says Ouditt.
The exhibition is a platform where art aims to give voice to a major social concern and serve as a creative intervention that can bring about change. Ouditt takes us on a visual journey, asking: How do we gauge whether we are losing it? How do we know when we are well or not well? With his art, he attempts to map out the co-ordinates of psychiatric disorders and wellness so that we might, as a society, navigate our way toward or proceed to mental health.
Several images in his series stand out: soldiers, a chicken being shot, a giant pig in a building and Rorschach inkblots being constructed with screws. They all highlight the issue of a straitjacket environment. “All the symbols matter. I don’t want the work to be literal, so this will mean that, but if you look at all of the compositions, they all suggest a heavy constriction, like punishment. The work looks at the forces in society, the traditions and elaborate mechanisms of keeping people in their places,” Ouditt says.
A recurring image is that of a simple architectural structure. Ouditt explains it is an icon he has been using in his work for a long time. “It is a simple A-frame house like an asylum, a hospice or a rehabilitation institution. In almost all of these instances, these places are associated with order that can be limiting, debilitating and scary. There are a lot of drawings using this icon. “The drawings remind me where I don’t want to end up.”
A lot of blandness in the work
Ouditt acknowledges the influence of the work of Greece-born artist Giorgio de Chirico: “Giorgio de Chirico has eerie landscapes with buildings that look haunted, with strange shadows. I don’t try to recreate his work but his spaces remind me of the frightening feeling I get when I look at all of the genres of constrictions we have to deal with here. One look at his paintings reminds me what it means to go to licensing office, or what it means to visit a minister, or line up to go to Panorama. His works provide a big environment for me to think things through.”
Along with the anxieties, terror and a feeling of claustrophobia that can come with the everyday pressures that affect us and squeeze us into tight, uncomfortable frameworks of existence, Ouditt also addresses matters of corruption and extreme self-importance as psychoses. His work features a buck-toothed character he calls Ralph D Evader. Ouditt describes him as “someone who does not think he needs to work hard to build a civilisation with a social conscience. He takes the easy way out. He bribes. He steals. He is corrupt.
He is a megalomaniac. “I don’t know if that is mental illness but I hope you could treat someone for that.” Colour is another factor in Ouditt’s exploration of mental wellness. Colour can affect our state of mind. He incorporates cream-coloured grid paper—a cream much like the colour of hospital and school walls. “I present a lot of blandness in the work. There are bland landscapes or blandscapes.”
Despite this exhibition’s capacity for effecting social transformation, Steve Ouditt does not see his role and his work in exalted or lofty terms. “I don’t have a role like a master to deliver a big message. I don’t see any other artist like that. There is no master artist. We are people working like anyone else.” He is careful to point out that his artworks are to be understood as graphs for charting mental wellness, as drawings for figuring out what it means to lose it or retain composure, as drawings for investigating our problems and for examining our stress points and coping strategies. His art is not to be seen as final answers to the mathematics of our psychological wellbeing.
“They are working drawings. You know like when you are doing sums in school you do working in the margins? All of these artworks are like the working out of the sums in the margins. That is why I call them graphs, because you can see that I am trying to work out the co-ordinates. There is an attempt to sustain a geometry throughout the whole thing so I can continue to work out the sums with confidence.”
Steve Ouditt is a prominent figure in the contemporary art scene. In 1997, his art, which was shown as part of the New Contemporaries exhibition in England, was praised by art critic Adrian Searle as one of the few works demonstrating originality. Over the years he has exhibited in such places as Cuba, China, Iceland and various European countries.
He holds a bachelor of fine arts from the School of Visual Arts in New York City and a master’s from Goldsmiths College in London. Ouditt is also an art historian, curator and lecturer. He was curator of research and education at the Institute of International Visual Arts in London and he has taught at the Caribbean School of Architecture in Jamaica. Since 2003, he has been lecturing at the University of the West Indies (UWI), St Augustine.
Steve Ouditt Proceeds to Mental Health opens on March 7 from 6.30 pm at Medulla Art Gallery, 37 Fitt Street, Woodbrook, and runs through April 14. Part proceeds from the exhibition will go to a number of future mental health awareness art projects to be done in collaboration with Dr Gerard Hutchinson. For more information, contact 740-7597 or [email protected]
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