Mental Health Heroes - Bobby Baker
By Rebecca Coxon
Bobby Baker is a woman who has thrown pears at walls, shouted at strangers in the street while strapped to a Double Decker bus, created an edible cake version of her family and psychoanalysed a pea with a personality disorder; all in the name of art of course.
Who is Bobby Baker?
Often adorned in her usual attire of a white lab coat, Bobby appears confident and hilariously dry witted in most of her performances, and the unrelenting laughs heard from her audiences illustrate the reason why she has fostered somewhat of a cult following over the years with an ever-increasing fan base all over the world.
However, it is clear to see from Bobby’s Diary Drawings that there is certainly another, less humorous side to her story. It is hard to imagine that such a self-assured and influential woman in the world of performance art and feminism has suffered from mental disability, but the 158 drawings she released at the Wellcome Collection exhibition in 2009 reveal the internal anguish Bobby privately suffered for so many years on her own.
While the images themselves are mostly playfully colourful, painted in beautiful watercolours and almost childlike in their style, the actual content is affective and predominantly very uncomfortable to look at.
Bobby suffered with mental health problems for 11 years and behind all the irony and laughter is a woman who has secretly experienced years of unremitting pain. She described herself as ‘mentally ill and deeply anguished’ during those years and admits that she was ‘distressed beyond anything I imagined possible for a human being to be and remain alive’.
Intimate drawings from a fragile mind
On being asked why she decided to release the private drawings Bobby explains, ‘At the time I just didn’t have any choice, I realised increasingly how little people understood.’
‘It was extremely harrowing to begin with, to stand next to those images, because it’s actually rather humiliating and mortifying to think that I was ever that ill.’
With a background in the world of art, having graduated from St Martin's with a diploma in fine art in 1972, Bobby explains how communicating her illness in this way facilitated her recovery, ‘I think doing things that you’re expressing yourself through I personally found very helpful.’
Raising awareness of mental illness is also an issue close to Bobby’s heart, ‘I felt so helped by other people’s experiences.’ She highlights the importance of ‘knowing that you’re not alone’, particularly enhanced by ‘people in the public eye’.
Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)
Bobby was diagnosed with ‘Borderline Personality Disorder’ in 1997, but she adamantly rejects this label, explaining how contested it currently is within the medical field and the promising possibility of the term being changed.
‘I just think it’s fundamentally flawed, it just implies that that’s it, you can never get better. There’s increasing evidence that people do get better.’
‘I object to the whole notion of disorder anyway because it implies order. I know there are a set of diagnoses or symptoms within certain categories but I think the labelling is deeply damning for people.’
Mad Gyms and Kitchens
Her new show Mad Gyms and Kitchens is a large-scale touring project ostensibly investigating the benefits of exercise and nutrition in the pursuit for health and ‘wellbeing’.
By celebrating and critiquing some of the advice she has received as a result of her disabilities, Bobby aims to elevate experiences of day-to-day survival onto the platform offered by the London 2012 Olympics – and a world-class stage.
The show has been awarded a London 2012 Cultural Olympiad Unlimited commission, a fantastic achievement and opportunity for a show that ‘is designed to reach as many people across the UK as possible, using mental health, educational and local survivor networks.‘
Explaining the ideas behind the project, Bobby says that what ‘really interests’ her is ‘people’s own ability to make decisions and have autonomy and self-respect. It’s the dynamic between the kind of people who are supposedly okay and the people who aren’t that actually can compound people into feeling helpless and trapped.’
‘I’ve always been full of hope, and I think at the end of the day I’ve produced work which helps people to hope, but within society there is such stigma about being sad that you can feel trapped and not talk about it.
‘Any kind of brush with mental illness is so enclosed and feared by people and I don’t believe that that helps any of us because it compounds a relationship where you feel you’re a bad person. I don’t believe in that and so if I have done anything that helps make people think differently then I’m pleased.’
Ultimately, she light-heartedly explains, ‘I hope it’s going to be funny and I hope it’s going to make people think.’
‘I just want to use my experiences to help make people feel better. I think its human nature when you’ve been through horrible things to want to make it better for other people’
Bobby’s message for those currently suffering with mental health problems is to remember that ‘there’s always hope.’
‘Trusting in your own gut feelings is the best way to get better, listening to yourself and valuing your own essential judgment because you are the best expert on yourself.’
Once you get past the humour, addictively dry wit, and often surreal absurdity that Bobby teases her audiences with, you realise that Bobby is ironically and satirically portraying a very serious and important message: mental disorders are here and they are part of our daily lives. ‘Given that one in four people will experience mental health problems at some point in their lives, it feels very relevant to be open about it’ says Bobby.
And there are certainly not many more open ways of raising awareness about the reality of mental health problems today than performing in front of thousands of people, and more importantly making them heave with laughter whilst you do it.
Mad Gyms and Kitchens is currently in production. It will premiere at Bath ICIA in October 2011 and will then tour nationally from January - June 2012.
Visit http://www.bobbybakersdailylife.com/ for more information including updates about the upcoming tour.
Pictures of Bobby Baker's drawings were kindly provided by Welcome Images
Further help on Borderline Personality Disorder
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