Hanan Hazime Trades Trauma Art for Mad Joy
An audio version of this article is available here:
I chose to pursue a career in the arts because I wanted to push boundaries and break binaries by creating art that featured Mad/disabled Lebanese-Canadian Muslim women (like myself) as heterogeneous, multidimensional human beings. My focus was not on explicitly writing stories or creating visual art about my own lived experiences of trauma, madness, disability, racism, sexism, or Islamophobia. I simply wanted to create beautiful works of art that spoke to the entire breadth of the human experience featuring people who share my identity.
Initially, I began to write and create artwork about my own experiences of madness and trauma in order to purge negative emotions. I was doing it for my own wellness. It was not meant to be consumed by anyone else, so I didn’t submit it for publication or display. However, rejections for my non-trauma-related artwork and writing began piling up. Then one day, five years ago, I saw a call for submissions that was specifically aimed at Mad artists. The only caveat was that the submission had to explore the topic of mental health. I decided to submit something – one of the cathartic pieces I had created about my lived experience with madness. That was my entryway into the world of Mad/disability arts. I submitted more work focused on trauma and, suddenly, I was getting acceptances. I quickly learned that the general expectation in the art world is that Mad/disabled artists should make work that centres around their madness and disability.
I am not alone in noticing this trend. Self-identified Mad artist and educator Lisa Walter also agrees that “calls for work by Mad/disabled artists tend to have either an expectation that submissions bare the soul of the artist, will articulate hope for being cured or of recovery, or serve as inspiration.” She believes that while there is nothing inherently wrong with these kinds of works, “no one should feel that they have to limit themselves to such artwork or else divest themselves of their Mad identity.” She also points out that “these narratives can easily be co-opted by the organization issuing a call for submission.” Indeed, even arts organizations with good intentions often contribute to the essentialization of Mad/disabled folks by only offering opportunities for representation that focus on dispelling stigmas, raising awareness, and sharing narratives of lived experience.
Multidisciplinary artist A. Sagan wants to see calls for submissions for Mad artists that encompass a spectrum of subjects, not just mental health. They feel that such opportunities would show that Mad folks have “a range, a scope as artists that is unique, powerful, and has its own voice in the world.” They also feel that having to dwell on the experience of mental illness as if it is the only valuable thing Mad artists can offer is, “with all due respect and appreciation to those who want to show our art, almost like being paraded around like some kind of circus attraction.”
The more of my trauma I shared through art and artist talks, the more I too began to feel like a circus attraction. It was empowering at first. I believed I was raising awareness, educating non-Mad and non-disabled people in hopes that they would see me and other Mad/disabled folks as humans worthy of equal rights, dignity, living wages, and love. Yet, none of that labour ever came to fruition. The expectation to share trauma and to be inspiring became exhausting. No amount of awareness I or other Mad/disabled folks raise through our art seems to be enough. Our pain appears to be just another capitalistic commodity, a type of “trauma porn” to be consumed while much of the audience consuming it sits idly by, doing nothing to aid us in our fight for social justice. The authors of Recovering our Stories: A Small Act of Resistance touch on this notion of trauma porn: “As late as the mid-20th century, visiting asylums for voyeuristic entertainment was a common form of amusement […and today] mad stories have become a kind of pornography that is produced and consumed in the interest of the audience itself. Like those inmates paraded out in the past, the storyteller is barely acknowledged, and rarely appropriately compensated.”
After a few years of being immersed within the Mad/disability arts community, I began to feel uncomfortable with constantly showcasing my trauma. However, as a broke artist, I did not have the privilege or luxury of turning any opportunities down. I felt discouraged. Nobody seemed to want my non-trauma themed work. I wanted to scream: Yes, I am openly Mad and proud of it, and I am fighting for justice, but there is more to me than just my madness. Not being able to also share my joy made me unhappy. Then the pandemic happened and my unhappiness and discomfort culminated in a mental breakdown. I was officially burnt out.
I can’t do this anymore, I told a friend over a phone call. Life sucks right now. I need to create art that brings me joy. I want to write poetry about love and hope. I want to paint flowers like Van Gogh.
For months now, I have been creating joyful art for my own pleasure. I have dubbed it Mad Joy. I think it is just as radical and just as important to celebrate the triumphs, successes, and joys of Mad/disabled folks as it is to acknowledge their struggles and hardships.
Jaene Castrillon, a Mad interdisciplinary artist, also refuses to be defined and boxed in by trauma and instead chooses to share both “the brilliance and heart-break of living a life less ordinary.” In a chat over social media, they tell me, “Mad artists are fabulous and we can’t contain it. Imagine being this fabulous and having to be held to your traumas instead of your many triumphs and celebrations.”
Lina Ru, Sunrise of a Rose
Multilingual sound poet and experimental filmmaker Lina Ru shares with me that she also chooses to create art focused on joy “because today is delightful: a pair of northern cardinals are chirping, the snow on the rooftops is melting…spring is about to knock on our doors with tons of flowers!”
Like Lina, I am looking forward to springtime. I am hopeful that after the pandemic, a revolutionary spring will emerge where Mad/disabled artists will be given opportunities to share more than just their struggles. I am hopeful that future attempts to represent and support marginalized folks won’t come at the expense of us dragging our traumas out into the open for everyone to gawk at. I am hopeful that we won’t have to “sell” our traumas in order to live. I will continue to advocate for Mad/disabled folks through my art, because I am not ashamed of being Mad/disabled. I still believe it is important to share my lived experiences, but I will do so on my own terms – not because it is expected of me. As James Oppenheim says in his famous poem, “Yes, it is bread we fight for, but we fight for roses too.” We want justice and we want to live without stigma, but we want Mad Joy too.
Special thanks to all the artists who shared their thoughts with me: Jaene Castrillion, Lina Ru, A. Sagan, and Lisa Walter
Hanan Hazime is a multidisciplinary artist, creative writer, community arts educator, and creative writing instructor living in Tkaronto/Toronto. She also identifies as a Lebanese-Canadian Shi’a Muslimah Feminist and Mad Pride Activist. When she’s not writing or creating art, she enjoys reading fantasy and science fiction novels, overanalyzing things, photo-blogging, dancing with faeries in the woods, and drinking copious amounts of tea. Instagram: @the.mad.muslimah