Life and art, part two: Talking with Erminia Colucci

“I’m always surprised at how willing people are to share if they see a purpose for it and they’re not going to be judged.”

Erminia Colucci was going about her work in academia when an unusual e-mail arrived from a stranger. Australian artist Mic Eales had come across her work on spirituality and suicide and took a chance, telling her about the pieces he’d created in trying to understand his suicidal thinking. He assumed he’d hear nothing, but Erminia was intrigued.

Their collaboration led to a groundbreaking art exhibition on suicide last year in Australia. This is the second of three interviews about “Inspired Lives,” the reactions to the exhibition and the desire to take the message of suicide attempt survivors and suicidal thinking into mainstream life. (You can see the exhibition brochure here, at the final link.)

Suicide shouldn’t be mistaken as being always tied to mental illness, Erminia says, echoing Mic and some others interviewed here. She thinks of China and India, for example: “Suicide is one result of violations of the basic human rights of females,” she says. “Mental health organizations don’t focus much on human rights, but this work is very important to me. … We can’t just work in a traditional way, with the medical model of suicide. A lot of women die because they just can’t be human beings. No freedom. No respect. Where we also need to be able to act.”

She would love to bring the exhibition to other countries and continue the conversation with local artists, and the United States is in her sights.

Who are you?

I’m still trying to work it out! Officially, I am a psychologist by background, but I’ve always been interested particularly around suicide. I did my honors thesis and PhD on suicide, youth suicide. Because of this interest, when I was working as a clinical psychologist I went back to academia and for my PhD did a cross-cultural study on youth suicide in Italy, India and Australia. I wanted to understand what it actually meant, the cultural meanings of suicide. I work at the University of Melbourne, though I just came back. I was in the UK for the last year, doing a master’s in visual anthropology. At the moment, I’m doing a documentary on mental illness and human rights. I’ve been filming people who are working around protecting the rights of people with mental illness in Indonesia.

Who am I? I’m in academia, but I’m really interested in giving a voice to people who are not usually heard, like suicide survivors, the mentally ill, people whose rights are violated. That’s kind of in a nutshell who I am. My interests are not always really mainstream. With suicide, I’m looking at the culture, and I’m also looking at arts as a way of understanding and communicating. I’ve been using theater, and now I’m using film and photography. That’s how all of this came about, through my contact with Mic Eales and this interest in arts and in spirituality, which some in mental health feel uncomfortable dealing with. So I like to sit in those spots where academic people and others usually don’t like to sit.

How did you come across Mic, and how did that lead to the exhibition?

It’s a long story and a lovely journey. It’s been very important to knowing who I am, actually. Mic was doing his honor thesis on suicide, and he was finding it hard in engaging people in this kind of work. He wrote me an e-mail about spirituality and his work, “I do this and that.” He expected to not, you know, find much interest. But for me, I went like, “Wow, that’s amazing.” And we started working together. We did some seminars and workshops at the University of Melbourne about art and suicide. Quite a few people attended, and some of them had themselves dealt with suicide. Some knew someone who had attempted suicide. We wanted to work with people to share their experiences using a more creative way, and share as much as they wanted to share.

For me, it’s always been important that we as advocates, policy makers, academics and services have to have more space for people with lived experience, to have their voices, and in the way they want to express their voice. For some, it’s in a more creative way. We can’t expect everyone to be writing academic papers, you know what I mean? So the exhibition came about. We did a workshop at the university, and all the seats were taken. So people wanted to talk about it.

Mic and I take a non-medical approach. We don’t see it from a diagnosis and mental illness framework. Some people think in that way, but not everybody. For some, suicide is a much more existential problem, how they see life. It’s a much more personal way of looking at suicide. At the same time, it’s cultural. It’s not about imposing a way of looking at suicide. And so, when I saw there was a great response of people about the way we wanted to talk about suicide, in a creative and nonthreatening and nonjudgmental way, for us it meant we were on the right path.

Basically, shortly after, I contacted the Dax Centre. They run some very nice initiatives. I spoke to the director: “Look, I have this idea, around suicide attempts, a creative approach.” They were interested, but it was so new, it wasn’t immediately accepted. But I persisted. Mic and I decided to go ahead. And Jessica. We put out a kind of call to get people together who used artistic means to express their feelings. More than 30 people contacted us in one month, so again, we had quite a big response. We were lucky, we got on board Amy as curator, and she went to work at the Dax Centre. And that’s how it came about. So it’s been an interesting experience, and challenging.

There were fears about having a damaging effect, that people would go and jump off a bridge. That feeling was extremely strong. It is a very simplistic and widespread way of thinking about an issue. If you talk about it, what if people say, “I’m not the only one”? If they know they can get out of that, that others have come out at the other end, they can learn to cope with that, so what about talking about it? And using an artistic, creative way?

I read that the exhibition was rejected by other galleries.

Honestly, it’s been a journey. I want us to write a book about this, how society reacts to the issue. I wanted it to be something for the public. A lot of projects like this target, how should I say, the converted. We wanted to reach out to the general public. I wanted to be in a mainstream gallery, not a small place in the middle of nowhere. These guys are very skilled artists, and their work is at the same level  with any other artist featured in these galleries. But people were really concerned. They thought the public would not be interested. They were concerned about having the word “suicide” there, about potentially increasing the risk of suicide. I’m not going to say the name, but one of the main organizations in Australia looking after depression, when we started the conversation, they said it was a good idea, but it needed to fit their agenda, something fitting with depression. But the artists, they don’t want to identify as people who are suicidal because they’re depressed. That’s not their experience of it, so why should we fit inside this box because it fits the funder? Why fit inside a model that we feel doesn’t really represent the issue? So we said “No,” so no funding.

The Dax Centre hosted us. When we had kind of a panel about this, they said this was the first time they had done something like this, but they decided to go ahead. I’m very honored. We knew it was going to be good. From the point of view of people like Mic and Jessica and Konii, the work could inspire others. From my part, it was how to get academics, policy makers and others to listen, those who make decisions, you know? So it was very tricky.

This project also represents how society reacts to suicide. In Australia, suicide is seen as a very individual problem, about the person, but our project is about society as well. The way people responded is that there’s much fear, that the problem is also with them. I honestly think people don’t want to talk about suicide because it’s too uncomfortable, that somebody they love, or too many people in society, are thinking about it. And so we need to have a project of this kind. Artistically, it was a beautiful project curated beautifully. I think we need to have more of this initiative, make a statement about “This is who I am, and this is what it is for me. And listen to me.”

What were the reactions?

I was there a few times, and it was always very hard to see what people were thinking. I think they had a fourfold increase of viewers over past exhibitions. So there was a big response. And it’s very, very important. There are fears, but there are people in society who want to go and know what it’s about. People came to the panel, and quite a few of them were suicide survivors, so we know there were people themselves dealing with the same issues.

I don’t know, I guess the feeling when we went to see this exhibition was … people thought it was a challenging issue. Some of the comments were, “It was quite confronting.” It really got you, a strong emotional impact. But it was not, like, overwhelming. It was not to make you feel sad or frightened. There was something very positive about it. The show was called “Inspired Lives.” It was not about people feeling dark or, like, being overwhelmed. Actually, it was about these people who in the end have chosen to live. Like Jessica, who just had her second baby two weeks ago. Mic continues his career. So they’ve chosen to live. And that can be inspiring. So the comments were very positive.

Were there any questions asked that surprised you?

Not really, no. I’ve been in this field quite a bit, so nothing surprises me. I’m always pleasantly surprised at how open people are about sharing their experiences. One man who came to the panel was a PhD student. I knew him, but he actually had never said that he himself had tried to take his life. Then, in this public discussion, he said it. I was really touched. I didn’t know. I felt it was a positive experience for him to share with the people he knew would understand him. I’m always surprised at how willing people are to share if they see a purpose for it and they’re not going to be judged.

Did you run into the thinking that, “Well, they’re artists, it’s OK for them to talk about that experience.”

At the workshop, of the people who came there, none were artists. Some of them had never done anything creative. I think in general it might be a bit easier for artists to present intimate experiences, sexual or whatever. It’s seen as more acceptable, but I don’t think it’s all about that. It’s more about using arts as an idiom for people to express and share. I think we haven’t used that enough to explain people’s experiences. As a researcher, that’s where I want to go. I find Australia’s not easy to do that, using more creative ways. The academic structure, like everywhere in the world, is like a business, a way to bring in money. As soon as you get out of what everyone else is already thinking, how to survive? These things I do out of my passion. It’s very sad to have no funding for such things. It’s about getting those kinds of voices out there and learning from them.

What did you learn from this experience?

I’m still learning from it. From the e-mail Mic sent me, he does know: Mic, how thankful I am to you. I’ve read so much and go to conferences, but this has been a different perspective.

Also, this experience made me reflect about “Where do I sit? When thinking about it, who do I want to work with? Do I sit with the people who make decisions? Or do I sit with the people we’re talking about, the ones we make decisions for?” I want to be with the people. That’s my place. I try to use whatever I can to help others to have this voice. It’s a risk I’m willing to take. It’s something I want to pursue further.

Now Mic and I are thinking about where we can take the exhibition. There’s been a very good response in Australia, very good media coverage. We want to inspire others to do similar work. I’m very keen to go to the U.S., to New York, to go to other countries. The way in which Mic and I work, it’s about collaborations with other artists. We see the exhibitions with a selection of the pieces but traveling to other places and then, in collaboration with local artists, putting a show together. It’s building up a kind of conversation, instead of being something static. It’s what I want to see happening. My next dream is bigger, and I know we need support.

I’m interested in people’s experiences, the so-called consumers. Sitting on panels, in working groups, what is that really doing, other than making you feel good about it? What about doing something like this? I have really stepped back. I wanted this to be their show. We have tried to make this their show. It should be where we are sitting in the corner and they have something out about them. It’s not easy, especially in academia, where a lot of big egos are involved.

There’s always some exposure when talking about a hot topic. But I want to take this kind of risk in some way, talk about what really matters. Sometimes the decision makers walk away from things that really matter because it’s something that’s too difficult to deal with. Like spirituality. I think the only way to make sure that things that really matter are on the agenda is having the people affected as part of the agenda, being really involved. I think to have the things that really matter “in” is really important to people with lived experience. In whatever means they choose, which can be the arts.

Do you have a favorite piece or pieces from the exhibition?

That’s an interesting question. I didn’t think about it! It’s like having kids, which one is your favorite kid? I’m very proud of what the guys have done. So it’s difficult for me to say. One piece is a documentary that Mic put together about some of the work done together. And there was one piece, the white lotus.

The one with the umbrella?

Yes. It started when Mic and I were at a conference two years ago, at an IASP conference. I must acknowledge that Lanny Berman and Mort Silverman have been very supportive of our work. They supported us to organize a workshop in China. One of my interests is domestic violence and women’s rights. Suicide is one result of violations of the basic human rights of females. Mental health organizations don’t focus much on human rights, but this work is very important to me.

Mic and I had conversations about the topic. He’s amazing, he came up with the concept, the symbolism of the lotus in China. So I feel very close to the piece, which is also a memory of Mic and I in China and our adventure together. I really care about the issue of domestic violence against women and suicide, so it was touching to see it visually represented by Mic. Also, Konii’s piece was powerful. Being in the space was a very strong response, and I’ve seen people reacting to it. I don’t know if Konii realized the powerful impact of her work. I hope she does.

How would you describe the piece?

The panels are all around the wall, a room with panels of charcoal, from the bush fire. You needed to walk in, and once in the space you are surrounded by these panels. It’s the cover of the catalog, a panel from Konii’s work.

Can you think of other countries that would welcome this exhibition?

I think of countries like America, with the means to support this kind of work, and using it as a way to continue the conversation. New York is a great place, a great place to talk to people from all over the world, and I expect a country like America to take this project on board, to continue this conversation with local artists. But I’d also like to go to countries like Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, where actually it is difficult, where we need to make a lot of changes and need to respond to this. I mean “we” as a global “we.” We started in China, and China has the highest rate of suicide among women. So many lives every single second. Or India, where I’ve done a majority of my work. Suicide among women is increasing. There’s a lot to be done.

We can’t just work in a traditional way, with the medical model of suicide. A lot of women die because they just can’t be human beings. No freedom. No respect. Where we also need to be able to act. So this exhibition, to me, is part of my being an activist, using the scholarly ability to be an activist. We need to get together and make some important social changes.

Who else are you?

This kind of work, for me, is who I am. It is who I am. I am also an ethnographic documentary filmmaker and photographer. I love the outdoors. Like this morning, I went very early on the beach for a run and a swim. Though I’m a very bad runner. But I love the outdoors. Encounters with nature really make me feel good. And I love animals. And I love sports. And I love food. A very typical Italian. Food and good wine and cheese. And I love my niece. I was thinking about the things I love, and she came to me.

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