Artists with schizophrenia showcased at new Arts and Disability Forum exhibition. Click Play Video for an online exhibition

‘My work,’ explains artist Stephen Gharobaoui, ‘is a journey to explore myself and understand myself better.’ Self-knowledge is a common artistic goal, but Gharobaoui and friend and fellow artist, Colin Hamilton, have a special reason to want to understand themselves – both suffer from schizophrenia.

Hamilton and Gharobaoui have joined forces for Hejira, an exhibition of their work in photography, video, audio and text that opened at the Arts and Disability Forum in Belfast on February 19 and runs until March 19. 

The title originates from the Arabic word for migration, referring to the flight of Mohammad from Mecca in 622, though for the artists it has a less overtly religious meaning. ‘It’s about searching. For us as writers it is all about searching for a better place, spiritually,’ says Gharobaoui.

Schizophrenia, as both artists are at pains to point out, is a much misunderstood illness. Despite its etymology (the term literally means ‘split-mind’), schizophrenia is characterised by an abnormal perception of reality not the sensation of multiple personalities (which is known as dissociative disorder).

Schizophrenia has had a lasting effect on the artists’ work – and indeed both only started making art with the onset of the illness. As Hamilton explains, ‘my writing of poetry really began with the arrival of schizophrenia.
‘I was in second year in university studying physics and things went a bit ballistic. It was then I decided I wanted to write a poem. It was in the middle of a thunderstorm and this thing came out – a very dark poem. That’s 30 years ago and I’ve kept at the poetry ever since, whereas I don’t really do the physics these days.’

Hamilton’s story is not atypical of schizophrenics. While society often stigmatises sufferers as mad, dangerous and in need of supervision, the strong correlation between the illness and creativity is less commonly acknowledged.

Antoin Artaud, Tennessee Williams, Jack Kerouac, Syd Barrett – all were  diagnosed with or highly suspected of having schizophrenia, and recent research from the University of California posits a link between schizotypal personal characteristics, less extreme schizophrenic symptoms like odd behaviour and language, and creativity.

‘I have struggled to understand myself and my own identity, and I found when I first accepted that I was struggling mentally writing was a self-therapy and it developed into something that I got a wee bit better at and I enjoyed,’ says Gharobaoui.

‘Now I use poetry to understand my own thoughts and hopefully understand myself better.’

Issues of identity, belonging and mental health all lie at the heart of Gharobaoui’s contribution to Heijira. In summer 2007, the artist received a grant from the Arts and Disability Forum for a project exploring Islam, terrorism and mental well-being in his father’s homeland, Morocco.

After three months researching on the internet and in libraries Gharobaoui spent two weeks travelling around Morocco, ‘to get my five senses stimulated’.

It certainly got the creative juices flowing – Gharobaoui returned with over 100 poems, far more than the 14 earmarked as a project outcome, and a wealth of photographs. The poems have been published in a collection entitled From South Belfast to Souk el-Arbaa du Rharb.

Juxtaposed against Gharobaoui’s poems and photographs are a selection of texts from what Hamilton describes as, ‘my life and career as a schizophrenic poet’. As well as poems written in pencil, mounted A2 sheets contain excerpts from a prose project the artist is currently embarked on which combines anecdotes, reminiscences and fictive accounts.

Elsewhere in the gallery a video shows both poets reading from their work - the aim, Gharobaoui explains, is ‘to connect the voice as well as the written image on the wall’. On arrival, visitors can pick up an MP3 of this recording to listen to as they move through the exhibition.

Hamilton may have titled his collection A Box of Frogs, ‘from the Belfast expression ‘so and so is as crazy as a box of frogs’, but, as Hejira shows, schizophrenics are not mad, they just see the world a little differently. 

Hejira runs until 19 March at the Arts and Disability Forum, 109 - 113 Royal Avenue, Belfast. 

Peter Geoghegan