Presented by Arnolfini, Bristol, A Picture of Health is a timely and poignant exhibition, both in its overarching concepts and its individual stories. Via autobiographical perspectives, conceptual works and social commentaries, A Picture of Health explores the roles of the hidden self, trauma, environment and care, within the wider narratives of health and wellbeing. Featuring the work of 11 contemporary women photographers, this diverse exhibition asks us to consider how, or why, our emotions are so often at odds with the image we present to those around us.
Simply and effectively staged, the exhibition begins with the work of Heroine and celebrated visual artist and performer, Heather Agyepong. Via satirical comedy and depictions of radical self-worth, Heather’s 2020 body of work, Wish You Were Here, masterfully sets out A Picture of Health’s emotive yet self-affirming tone.
Distributed throughout Europe at the turn of the century, postcards featuring African American Cake Walk dancers were often offensive and grotesque; removing all agency from the talented performers they depicted. In re-creating these postcards, and in casting herself as celebrated African American vaudeville performer, Overton Walker, Heather re-frames their narrative as one of self-care. Each image, carefully layered with symbolism, offers a mandate to people of Afro-Caribbean descent to take up space. Wish You Were Here prompts reflections on ownership, entitlement and mental wellbeing, encouraging us to consider how we see ourselves and others, both in real and imagined realities.
Following Wish You Were Here, A Picture of Health presents works by documentary photographer and filmmaker, and fellow Heroine, Anna Fox. Beginning in 1983, Anna’s expansive and on-going body of staged and documentary portraits, Pictures of Linda, follows the life and style of punk musician, Linda Lunus. In the selection of works presented, Anna focuses on a period of the 1990s during which Lunus was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and her subsequent time spent in hospital.
In juxtaposing her dramatic portraits of the bold, colourful and resolutely independent Lunus, with a caption that frankly discusses her experiences of hospitalisation, Anna asks us to reconsider our own preconceptions of mental health problems and those who experience them. Similarly, in discussing Lunus’ difficult and brave decision to share images taken during her time in hospital, Anna further highlights the on-going stigma surrounding mental health problems and the specific misconceptions that exist around bipolar disorder.
Via works by photographers including Jo Spence, Sonia Boyce and Polly Penrose, A Picture of Health goes on to explore the vulnerability and power of womanhood, the on-going trauma of colonialism and the disparity between internal and external self. Each body of work is accompanied by a question: How are you silencing yourself? How can we talk about our health without fear? Who or what catches you when you fall? As we collectively battle the trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic, and as we brace ourselves for the mental health crisis that will surely arrive in its wake, there has perhaps never been a more crucial time to engage with these accomplished bodies of work, and to consider our answers to the evermore pressing questions they pose.
While Arnolfini is currently closed in line with government guidelines, a brief walkthrough of the exhibition can be seen here.
By Philippa Kelly