S/HE SPOKE ‘I AND I’ FOR WE: On the poiesis of collective mental healing

––  AoN Symposium on the occasion of the 58th Biennale di Venezia and in the framework of SAVVY Contemporary’s Ultrasanity in collaboration with the Psychiatric Community of the Fondazione Emilia Bosis

He spoke "I and I" for we, a sense that said
The collective was on flesh in different skins
And we were only branches of the Mighty Dread
Separated by customs, flawed beliefs and sins.
He said "I overstand" for the understanding we
Claim through muddled mire of mangy history.

L'nass Shango [1]

So the human story/history becomes the collective story/history of these multiple forms of self-inscription or self-instituted genres, with each form/genre being adaptive to its situation, ecological, geopolitical.

Sylvia Wynter [2]

The struggle we are confronted with cannot be in any way a one-person task. We must now collectively undertake a rewriting of knowledge as we know it. This is a rewriting in which, inter alia, I want the West to recognize the dimensions of what it has brought into the world—this with respect to, inter alia, our now purely naturalized modes or genres of humanness. You see? Because the West did change the world, totally. And I want to suggest that it is that change that has now made our own proposed far-reaching changes now as imperative as they are inevitable. As Einstein said, once physical scientists had split the atom, if we continue with our old way of thinking—the prenuclear way of thinking—we drift as a species toward an unparalleled catastrophe. (…) We therefore now need to initiate the exploration of the new reconceptualized form of knowledge that would be called for by Fanon’s redefinition of being human as that of skins (phylogeny / ontogeny) and masks (sociogeny). Therefore bios and mythoi. And notice!
One major implication here: humanness is no longer a noun.
Being human is a praxis.

Sylvia Wynter [3]

The Association of Neuroesthetics (AoN) is presenting its 7th Venice Symposium on the occasion of the 58th Venice Biennale of Art. This year’s AoN symposium coincides with the first chapter of the year-long project Ultrasanity. On Madness, Sanitation, Antipsychiatry and Resistance by SAVVY Contemporary: a research, performance and exhibition project in multiple chapters in collaboration with the AoN, ifa Gallery in Berlin, the Gnaoua Festival in Essaouira, and the 6th Biennale de Lubumbashi. The event brings together cognitive scientists, clinicians, social scientists, artists, patients and neuroscientists to challenge hegemonic knowledges and healing practices in biomedical psychiatry and psychoanalysis, and to cogitate together about alternative approaches, countertechniques and their significance in and as science themselves. Hegemonic therapeutics is primarily based in a Western ethnocentrism that disregards the healing possibilities of collective, mythic and historical narratives. With this programme we endeavour to engage both discourse and praxis, disputing ideas of normality, expanding nosologies and questioning dimensions of a therapeutics grounded in scientific objectivity and ethics ignoring phenomenological and social dimensions, power agendas and collective meaning.

With the participation of patients and collaborators from the psychiatric community of the Emilia Bosis Foundation in Bergamo (Italy), the event raises issues that question several grammars of violence, among them those inscribed in currently practised universal therapeutic models and the primacy of psychopharmacology which often deletes the significance of spiritual, systemic, intra-generational histories and community in formulating healing strategies. In addition it interrogates and involves recent international experiments addressing relational and psychosocial dimensions, such as community-based collaborative care, and reparation through experiments with arts-based and collective processes of cultural therapy.

Clinicians and practitioners including Jaswant Guzder, Frederick Hickling and Vitor Pordeus, who will partake in the symposium, have engaged and sought alternatives to “the failure of white psychiatrists to ‘overstand’ the psychotherapeutic dynamics of black people”, [4] minorities and marginalized groups within Western societies. These hegemonics have been transported to the non-West without an imagination and reformulation of cultural embedding. In this encounter, we question the gaps and deletions of mythic and social realms created across cultural realities. Collectively, we endeavour to challenge the primacy given to the ‘rigours of pure science’ and Western Cartesian thinking, together with the innovations introduced by artists, practitioners and neuro-scientists.

We will not only focus on scientific (mis-)conceptions of psychopathologies, methods of treatment and modes of public policy management, but also address the complex network of family, medicine, state and economy to explore the potential of healing through collective practices.

In neoliberal conditions, the responsibility of individuals to take on the burden of care has been transposed onto themselves. We therefore consider the importance of seeing “psychiatric conditions not as individualised and depoliticised as often represented”, and seek to understand “how wider structures of global capitalism, geopolitical narratives and neoliberalisation of the state have impacts on our understandings of self on an everyday basis”.[5] João Biehl’s work, most notably his seminal account Vita: Life in a Zone of Social Abandonment (2005), which inspired some of our reflections, unravels these poetic and violent textures in the context of contemporary Brazil, contributing to our understanding of how the unwanted, the sick, mentally-ill and homeless are marginalized and constructed as other.

We will be addressing the emphasis on pharmaceuticalization as the vanguard of mental health intervention and healing in North-South and West-East exchanges of knowledge. In particular, the event focuses on the healing effort emerging from alternative work of large-group psychotherapy processes of ‘sociodrama’ and ‘psycho-historiography’ frameworks used in the deinstitutionalization of Jamaica through theatre and poiesis at Bellevue Mental Hospital in the mid-70s and in more recent child interventions in Jamaican schools. These latter efforts introduced poiesis and performance to address high rates of violence and risks for children in a post-slavery context. These frameworks mobilize the concept of group “reasoning” inspired by the Jamaican Rastafarian methodology of deep discussion through group process, which leads to the possibility of collective “overstanding”, a Rastafarian term denoting insight. [6]

Another innovative experiment arose in Brazil with the theatre and art projects held in the psychiatric complex of Engenho de Dentro in Rio de Janeiro, drawing upon the legacy of Nise de Silveira and the Madness Hotel project with a psychiatric outpatient population. Insisting on the difference between healing and curing mental health, Vitor Pordeus developed acting methods for mental healing and explored the connections between economics and mental health.

Invoking the affective agency of popular culture and theatre, Frederick Hickling contends that “central to deinstitutionalisation is the existence of a community capable of tolerating mentally-ill persons and providing a place for them in the society”.[7] Theatre, art and agency were engaged in psychiatric innovations arising in societies brutalized by colonization in both Jamaica and Brazil, building on the legacy and ideas of Frantz Fanon, Paulo Freire, Rex Nettleford and many other voices from these marginalized worlds. Arts-based healing interventions are fundamental to the approaches developed in both Jamaica and Brazil supporting the capacities of individual and collective agency and voice. This alternate discourse questioned pathways of reparation and created frameworks of healing deeply embedded in local symbolic and mythic worlds. These innovations ventured into the arts as essential vehicles to heal destroyed collective bodies and souls of post slavery societies. Artistic practices are rooted in personal experience and seek collective meaning, thus bridging the depths and shadows of the psyche through embodied and social contexts. In these experiments, group and community engagement are restored as central to well-being and remain highly relevant to healing and sacred ritual, irreverence and renewal.

Conceived as a mixed format of lectures, interventions, discussions, screenings and performances, the event will see the participation of sociologist Monica Greco, psychiatrist and artist Jaswant Guzder, actor and psychiatrist Vitor Pordeus, theatre director and activist Seydou Ndiaye, artist Pélagie Gbaguidi, neuroscientist Vittorio Gallese, filmmaker Diego Bruno, actress Giulia Benetti, among others.

Within such a trans-disciplinary constellation, together with clinicians, scholars, artists, patients and activists, we address the politics and practices of collective mental healing and confront ourselves with the need and urgency of re-humanizing therapy and care – or, as Sylvia Wynter puts it, of re-enchanting humanism [8] –, engaging also with the relationship between doctors and patients.


A stanza from L'nass Shango’s poem The Legacy, published online on poetrysoup.com: https://www.poetrysoup.com/poem/the_legacy_158952


David Scott, "The Re-Enchantment of Humanism: An Interview with Sylvia Wynter", Small Axe 8 (2000): 206.


Katherine Mckittrick, Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human as Praxis, Duke University Press (2015): 18, 23


Hickling is here using the Rastafarian word ‘overstand’ instead of understand, meaning to have complete or intuitive comprehension, to understand fully. Rastafarian language often employs play on words as a form of subversion of the colonial language, as a symbol of separation from the Western ideology and as well as a continual remembrance of the struggle for emancipation. See: Hickling FW. "Popular Theatre as Psychotherapy". Interventions. International Journal of Post Colonial Studies Vol 6 (1), 2004, 45-56.


Sophie Hoyle. Inner Security: Anxiety from the Interpersonal to the Geopolitical, A video-essay made for 'Anxious To Secure: Inner Security', a panel discussion at Transmediale, HKW Berlin 2016.


Rastafari language often employs play on words as symbol of separation from the Western ideology and as well as a continual remembrance of the struggle for emancipation.


Frederick W Hickling, "Community Psychiatry and Deinstitutionalization in Jamaica", Hospital & Community Psychiatry 45(11), December 1994, 1122-6.


“…because of the systemic marginalization, they were forced to daily experience their deviance, their imposed liminal status with respect to the normative order, and to what it is to be human in terms of that order. (..) we know about political sovereignty, especially with the rise of the state. We know about economic sovereignty, with the dominance of free market all over the world, together with its economic organization of reality. We do not know about something called ontological sovereignty. And I’m being so bold as to say that order to speak the conception of ontological sovereignty, we would have to move completely outside our present conception of what it is to be human, and therefore outside the ground of the orthodox body of knowledge which institutes and reproduces such a conception” in: "The Re-Enchantment of Humanism: An Interview with Sylvia Wynter", Small Axe 8 (2000): 119-207.