When someone says they are bipolar, we may be quick to do one of four things: judge them, distance ourselves, become dismissive, or offer unsolicited advice.
For local multidisciplinary artist Marinna Shareef, mental illness is neither taboo nor a foreign subject; she lives with the illness every day. It is art that helps her to understand her experiences, and she uses this forum to invite people to understand her as well.
The 25-year-old artist earned her Bachelor’s degree in Visual Arts from the Department of Creative and Festival Arts at UWI’s St Augustine campus in 2019 and has since exhibited at multiple shows while also teaching others to express themselves via digital and physical media.
Using an array of mediums such as ink, glitter, balloons, spray paint, acrylic paint, fluid acrylic and stickers, she builds her interconnected world of portraits. She noted that the vivid effect of her paintings came about when she applied fluid acrylic over acrylic paint.
Shareef held her first solo exhibition, “God of Mania” at the Frame Shop: A Space Inna Space at the corner of Carlos and Roberts streets, Woodbrook, Port-of-Spain. The show ended yesterday.
As a means of navigating her emotions, Shareef created a “mythology” of two characters: the “God of Mania” and the “God of Depression” that repeat as self-portraits, testifying of her lived experiences of bipolar disorder.
“The God of Mania is about the manic state; it’s hard to describe. It’s a sort of very elevated, grandiose happiness, and so to describe this feeling I often use the metaphor of a constant birthday party. While that may seem fun, a constant birthday party is kind of hellish because you have to be happy all the time, and it goes on and on. These paintings describe that. The vivid colours almost burn …” she said.
The two extremes of the mental illness, mania and depression, are explored through her portraits. Her acrylic portrait, “The Mortal”, speaks of mixed episodes whereby people with bipolar disorder are depressed but also have manic tendencies, showing the two extremes which occur at the same time.
Shareef said, “It’s me—what would happen if the gods were fighting? I was thinking what would happen in that world, something weather-like? So I came up with the idea that maybe it would be raining balloons, and this person, me—the mortal—would be wrecked, physically confused and dealing with an internal storm. These things are hard to explain especially when you’re experiencing them.”
A constant throughout her paintings is not only vivid colours and the variety of mediums she used, but also motifs of candy and food.
“People often use sweets in excess to deal with emotions. I love sweets. My favourite is chocolate cake over everything,” she confessed. “But too many sweets can lead to health problems, so while it may look pretty they often do lead to issues. With the God of Depression, I use sweet motifs a lot because depression is almost like a dizzying, depressive feeling.”
Regarding the stigmas surrounding mental health and how some people dismiss the experiences had by mentally ill people, the artist responded by saying that such “persons do not understand the intricacies of it, and do not understand that (mentally ill people) need medication or therapy to get better. We call St Ann’s Hospital “the mad house”, and so it’s deeply embedded within our culture to talk about mental illness as something that we can (dismiss).
“(Mental health) is as prevalent and important as a physical illness, and we should treat it as such. And I think, especially, we see it in our elders as they get older when they have mental issues. They would say, ‘No, I don’t need anxiety medication; why I need that for?’ But they do. When we have paintings and talk about mental health more, it’ll become less stigmatised, and maybe people will feel better about having these options.”
Shareef’s solo exhibition proves her candour, she refuses to hide and invites the public to witness the struggles of those rejected and misunderstood by society.
To understand more of her life, and also how the mind can become our enemies, Shareef’s next showing of her latest work will take the form of a digital video exhibition at Granderson Lab, Belmont, on a date to be announced. She will then be exhibiting in Seattle, in January 2024.