One of the only things most of us truly have in common is our innate desire to fit in. For the majority, our thought processes are swayed by the opinions of peers — whether consciously or otherwise.
This inbuilt mechanism to follow the tide may win us a few admirers, but it does little to unearth our true selves. Our personal identities are eroding like a smooth pebble after a million years of attrition.
Hiding your perceived weirdness is not only a dull way to live but it’s also dangerous for your mental health. It leads us into wearing bland masks to hide our character and using social media to discover the latest trends. But when you rely upon the validation of others, what happens when it stops? Where do you end up when your fragile pillars have been removed?
A generation of young people are facing these issues and it’s eye-watering to think that 10% of children between the ages of 5–16 have been diagnosed with a mental health condition or are experiencing problems related to personal well-being. I recognise that the nation’s mental health pandemic involves more than a desire for Instagram likes, but this collective craving for peer validation certainly can’t be helping.
To address this, London-based conceptual artist, Flo Awolaja, is looking to use the arts to help young people discover the essence of who they really are. Her programme, @BeSpoke, will be delivered in schools and explore the links between creativity, mental health and well-being.
“Within schools and education there are teachers doing great things but we need to remove the mentality that we all have to go through this funnel, irrespective of our own personal issues — one size does not fit all. Creativity offers the chance for young people to heal and express their emotions while reducing stress, fear and anxiety.”
@Bespoke consists of three six-week sessions that move a student from initial discussions around identity, through to creative expression via photography and the written word. The end result is an introspective journal that documents a young person’s true self — hopefully devoid of the usual trappings of societal pressures.
Flo, who also spent 15 years as a teacher, arrived at the idea when her son returned from university feeling adrift from the world he’d become accustomed to.
“I came to the issue of mental health as a mother of a young person who experienced issues of life and emotional well-being. Even as young adults, they may seem ok, but in reality, they are far from it.
“There really needs to be some investment in a more bespoke alternative intervention strategy, tailored to suit the need of the individual, not the masses.”
The issue of identity is one that Flo often references vividly in her works. Earlier this year, she exhibited a collection for Black History Month entitled ‘Ain’t No Jack’, which is a play on the book by Professor Paul Gilroy — ‘Ain’t no Black in the Union Jack’.
‘Ain’t No Jack’ — Flo Awolaja
Received with much acclaim, the collection featured five interpretations of the British flag, weaved in African batik cloth, to depict Britain’s involvement in the Commonwealth and “the struggle of the African and Caribbean nations’ fight for independence.”
Each flag tells it’s own story — from “the effect and impact on the indigenous people affected by the Empire” through to the emergence of “a people with the spirit of determination and a new sense of self after the Empire.”
Born to parents of Nigerian heritage, the concept of cultural identity underpins many of Flo’s of works and its no coincidence that her textile paintings champion uniqueness:
“No two pieces that I create will ever be the same. Whilst I am creating these textile paintings, I am only aware of the colours that I will use, but not the journey of the piece, each one has its own rhythm and story, that for me is what makes each one off piece unique.”
To move forward with @Bespoke, Flo needs to secure funding:
“[Funding] would give me the opportunity to combine my love of learning with the arts, through engaging with young people in a learning environment. Funding will also secure much needed equipment, such as sketchbooks, laptop and cameras.”
@Bespoke is a timely reminder that we all need to break through our conditioning and release our inner weirdness into the wilds. Or as Rousseau put it:
“I venture to believe that I am not made like any of those who are in existence. If I am not better, at least I am different.”
If you, or anyone you know, would like to chat to Flo about funding, please contact her on LinkedIn.