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It is a Friday afternoon and I am sitting at the curbside at Duxton Hill replying to an urgent email on my phone. It’s unusually quiet, most of the restaurants and bars are closed, only a couple of cafes are open.

My mind is elsewhere. I click “send” and am jolted back. Ah yes, the exhibition. I am here for ThisConnect.today’s latest art exhibition What Am I, If I Am Not?

It is located on the second floor of a shophouse. I take off my shoes as I enter and I am greeted warmly by Megan, 23, a volunteer at the mental health and arts advocacy group.

Founded at the start of the pandemic in 2020, ThisConnect.today is showcasing its third exhibition to raise awareness and spark dialogue about mental health and emotional wellness through art.

Founder Hun Ming Kwang, 28, tells The Pride: “People make assumptions about what mental health is and what mental health is not. Many times we think that we understand something, but do we really understand it?”

“Mental health has been an important thing that has been overlooked over the years. It’s only during Covid, where more people are stressed and start calling the hotlines, where people started focusing on this issue.

“I see this as an opportunity, a window for us to reach out to the masses to talk about this difficult conversation that people have not been able to talk about.”

Ming Kwang and Quinn Lum — better known as Hunny and Lummy — are the social artist duo behind What Am I, If I Am Not?

The exhibition at 39A Duxton Hill showcases five multi-disciplinary fine art pieces — Masks of Singapore, No Mud No Lotus, How Much Enough Is Enough, What Is My Truest Self, and Trauma Expression Series.

It explores the stigma, labels and judgements about mental health, and encourages audiences to consider their sense of self if they were to remove societal stigmas.

No Mud No Lotus

mental health care, I was fearful of talking about my mental health, but am learning to embrace it
Image source: Serene Leong

I start off at the farthest room at the back which is layered with soil. In the centre are mud balls, and several projector screens that show the mud balls being polished by hikaru dorodango, or the Japanese art of polishing mud balls to perfection.

“You can walk around, interact with the soil, sit and even lie down on it,” Megan says.

She explains that this work explores our relationship to courage and resilience — the mud and soil is a representation of the pain that we go through in life.

“What does it take to push through adversity to get that one thing you need to do? What is it in you that will keep you going when times are tough?” she asks.

After all, without the dirtiest mud, the lotus cannot bloom.

I notice the rough texture of the soil under my feet, the repetitive motions and sounds of glass scraping away at mud. Thoughts run through my mind:

We do the same thing day in and day out every day — but to what end?

I am a work in progress, refined into something greater. What will my finished product look like?

Will I even get there?

What Is My Truest Self

mental health care, I was fearful of talking about my mental health, but am learning to embrace it
Image source: Serene Leong

In another showcase, multiple screens show a man peeling away at different objects — an onion, a potato, a boiled egg.

Megan explains that this work explores our relationship to the different facades we wear every day: We are children to our parents, parents to our children. We are siblings to our siblings, friends to our friends. We are working professionals in our companies.

“During Covid many people got laid off. The question is: if i’m not a banker, accountant, lawyer, who am I? Without my job title, with no kids to take care of, who am I?” she asks.

Ming Kwang explains: “Metaphorically, how do we unpeel the different layers that we have constructed?”

We are so used to being somebody else for the people around us, whether it is at work or at home. But underneath the different layers and facades, can we still remain true to who we are inside?

Can we have the freedom to express ourselves without fear of being judged?

Can I?

Masks of Singapore

Mental Health Care - Masks
Image source: Serene Leong

The moment I stepped into the exhibition space, my eyes were drawn to the rows of colourful masks — 572 in total — displayed on the shelves. I later found out that these masks were made by people from all walks of life, including children, students and working professionals from organisations like Singapore Children’s Society, Singapore Cancer Society and Alzheimer’s Disease Association.

“Through creating the masks, participants explored their relationship with their ideal self, which is also their most authentic self,” Ming Kwang says.

Megan adds: “We got them to think: If time and money no longer matters, what is it that you want to do in your life? If you were to die tomorrow, what would be the most important thing you want to do?”

Mental Health Care - I imagine the person behind it
Image source: Serene Leong

As I observed each mask, I imagined the person behind it who made the mask, what he or she would be like if I were to meet them in person.

Perhaps because of our conservative asian culture, Singaporeans are not an open society. We don’t interact with others on a deeper level. We often don’t have a safe space to talk or be ourselves.

It got me thinking:

So we hide behind masks. And it is a lot easier now that these masks are behind a screen.

But why do we do so?

Behind the masks, we are uniquely different. We have different goals, aspirations and dreams. We feel different emotions — both positive and negative. And together it forms a beautiful collage that makes each of us unique.

What is mental health, and what is it not?

Ming Kwang shares that the one thing he hopes the audience will take away is the importance of understanding who we are as a person.

“We are not here to counsel people or to do therapy. We are creating awareness around a personal emotional and mental state.” Ming Kwang says.

“We want to bring people back to who they are as a person and to connect to their bodies whether it is from a physical, mental, emotional or spiritual awareness so that they are more equipped to handle whatever crisis in their lives.”

“With that resilience and courage, they can be a beacon of light for the people around them so that we can live in a more cohesive space and community especially in this pandemic.”

Mental health affects everyone

Covid-19 has taken a toll on our mental health, pushing the number of suicides up to 452 in 2020, up from 400 in 2019. More individuals are also seeking therapy to cope with mental health concerns and stress.

The worst part is that we have been going through this state of affairs for almost two years, and who knows how much longer?

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While awareness of mental health has improved over the years, the stigma surrounding mental health continues to be a reality.

Megan says: “Some people have a fixed image of what depressed people look like. They think mental health is only for people with issues. But mental health affects everyone, not just those in IMH.”

Listening to Megan, I realised that what she said resonated with me.

She had asked me earlier why I decided to pop by and I said that it was because I had never been to an exhibition like this before.

Mental Health Care - This.Connect exhibition
Image source: ThisConnect.today

I didn’t tell Megan that the reason was partly that I just wanted to get out of the house.

I used to think that mental health was something I didn’t need to concern myself with. After all, I was okay, right? I was fearful of even talking about it, because of its stigma.

But I realised that mental health is closer to me than I thought — my mental health is a part of me, like a plant growing inside me that I need to water daily.

The quest for mental health is really about finding the courage to be your true, authentic self, and showing that self to others — weeds, soil and everything in between.

Venue: 39A Duxton Hill, Level 2
Open daily from 12pm to 9pm
Sign up here: bit.ly/tctexhibit21

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Top Image: ThisConnect.today