Behind the Glass is a project exploring mental health by Boys Don’t Cry in collaboration with the Central Saint Martins Museum & Study Collection. Launching in Mental Health Awareness Week, the exhibition showcases new work created around the theme of male mental health, inspired by the artworks and stories in the Museum & Study Collection. Here, Boys Don’t Cry co-founder and BA Fine Art student Marcus Nelson shares his experiences and the motivation behind the show.
As a teenager growing up in a town outside of London, I had rarely heard of the term “mental health”. I thought that it affected a very small group of people in society and, with a kind of bravado, I dismissed the idea that it would ever affect me.
As I grew older, I realised this was not the case. My behaviour in and out of school started to deteriorate, as did my self care. By the time I got to Central Saint Martins, a supportive friend had mentioned that I might be experiencing mental health issues. I tentatively did some research online and finally realised that I fit the descriptions. At first, I felt embarrassed, shocked and disturbed – how could this be me? But as I learned more, I thought of my male childhood friends, many of whom were now addicted to drugs, and how they had the symptoms I was reading about. Mental health wasn’t something that was spoken about with my male friends. I had never asked them and they had never asked me.
I learned that three quarters of recorded suicides were men, and in the UK, if you were a young man aged between 20 and 49, you were more likely to take your own life than to die of cancer or in a road traffic accident. I was shocked and saddened how close I and my friends may have come to being represented in these statistics.
The Boys Don’t Cry collective came out of these experiences and realisations. With co-founder Brooke Wilson, who also had similar experiences to me, we felt there wasn’t a space for a discussions around male mental health in the world in which we lived. We wanted to create a space for talking and raise awareness. Even in my darkest days of depression, making art always gave me a sense of purpose and identity, so we decided to use this idea for our first exhibition called Boys Don’t Cry – The Modern Man. Curator Wilson says, “We knew after this show, that we were tackling issues a lot of people cared strongly about and realised a lot of them felt they didn’t have a platform or anybody to discuss it with.”
Artist Jewel Kay echoes the importance of learning from each other:
Everyone has come to the group for their own reasons, each with their own assumptions about mental health and as artists with their own practice. “When you hear other people’s life experiences you realise it’s not so clean cut. It’s good to get more perspectives than just my own,” adds Hugo Hitchins, whose work explores the white, heteronormative models of masculinity presented in celebrity culture.
The projects grew into a network of artists from across the UK from all creative disciplines and backgrounds. And the collective became more than just a group of people making artwork; it became a support bubble and a safe space. We found that a collective approach was much more effective than an individual one- by forming a group we not only felt safer to discuss things, but the exhibitions themselves became much more discursive and diverse: there was contrasting opinions on masculinity which we felt was an extremely important thing.
For the last eighteen months, artists from Boys Don’t Cry have taken part in sessions exploring the creative figures featured within the CSM Museum & Study Collection, who have either struggled with their mental health or lost their lives as a result. Many of these stories are unknown by the students, so as a group we have reflected on how these historical narratives relate to us in 2021. We hope that by timing this presentation with Mental Health Awareness Week we can create a meaningful dialogue with whose stories have been lost in time, and, in doing so, create a conversation around how we address male mental health today, and stop the cycle from repeating itself.
Behind the Glass is on display in the Central Saint Martins Museum & Study Collection window gallery from 10 May – 11June. Download the exhibition catalogue (PDF: 3.4mb).
Mental Health Awareness Week is 10-16 May. Whatever you are going through, you can talk to the Samaritans for free, at any time, on any phone, on 116 123. You can also email them at firstname.lastname@example.org
If you’re a UAL student you can get advice and support through the Counselling, Health Advice and Chaplaincy service on 0207 514 6251 or emailing email@example.com