Reading about why women (and some men) were institutionalized and how they were treated during their often lifelong hospitalization struck me. “The aim of the therapy,” Hennig writes, “was that they should behave as society expected them to: in other words, to be good, feminine, friendly, industrious and obedient.”
In these psychiatric homes, women lived in poor circumstances. Confined, abandoned, punished, separated from their personal belongings, and without privacy, they became violent toward themselves. The pain they inflicted on their bodies, according to Hennig, “mirrored the humiliation they had to face day by day from doctors, staff, society, their families and their loved ones.“
Another way to survive was to secretly make artworks that could be considered acts of rebellion to be able to preserve a sense of agency and identity in an environment where this seems almost impossible.
The women had no access to art materials to create and express themselves. However, some brave women would create artworks by redesigning their clothes, writing in embroidery with removed thread from bedding and clothing, or writing with blood on cardboard.
Hennig explains: “For women in mental institutions in the early 1900s, the spontaneous act of creation, whether writing, drawing, sculpting or embroidery, became an assertion of their identity, and as such it should be distinguished from art therapy. Many used their art as a means of escape from the humiliation of institutionalized life. Seldom was their creativity acknowledged, and their actions and reactions in the clinics were seen as symptoms of madness.“
I find it heartbreaking to realize the level of dehumanization they had to experience and feel a strong impulse to react to it through my artwork to honour these women and offer respect and dignity for all those who have suffered these circumstances.