Mwini Mutuku has battled depression for years. He has contemplated killing himself several times, but luckily he has been able to beat the mental illness and is using his experience and art to help others
“One time you are happy and the next you are so sad that you think of taking your life. Your moods oscillate like a pendulum,” says Mwini Mutuku, who has battled bipolar disorder for years. Bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depressive illness, is a brain disorder that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels, and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks.
The 29-year-old artist deals daily with his mental illnesses and taking time to educate others. In an exhibition that took place on August 6, he used Visceral, a conceptual art exhibition to explore emotions and the mind through mirrors. “I do that to engage my audience in the internal journey of my condition,” he says.
Ministry of Health consultant psychiatrist and clinical psychologist Dr Njeri Muigai assists us to understand bipolar by linking Mwini’s work with his condition. Mwini went through manic depression early in life and remembers a sense of isolation at a young age. “When I was in primary school, I was violent and I remember househelps telling children not to play with me,” he says.
In Form Two, he was once booked for detention, resulting in him punching the walls till his knuckles bled. Mwini was raised in Nairobi and holds a degree from Limkokwing University of Creative Technology, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He met his Iranian wife Maral Bolouri, also living with the condition, while studying professional design between 2006 and 2010.
At different points before meeting Maral, he often had thoughts of jumping off a campus balcony and ending life. She came to his rescue, asking that he get checked and after a psychiatrist in Kenya confirmed he was bipolar, he was able to keep the extreme mood swings in control through antidepressants, which he takes to date.
When asked what motivated his works, Mwini says: “I had heard a well-known artist make a joke about me, saying he thought he was bipolar in his tooth.” That is when Mwini decided to try and explain his condition.
His work shows what he terms extremities that go on in his mind through the use of the colour red, which is symbolic of love as well as death.One participant in the exhibition termed his work complex.
Mwini says his idea of using a dot and constructing motifs for his design was a depiction of different emotions. Mwini works with traditional materials, including acrylic paint, for large-scale works, and with non-traditional industrial and day-to-day materials, such as vinyl and mirrors, to build a sensory and emotional experience for viewers.
Muigai says doctors generally agree bipolar disorder is caused by a mix of interacting genetic defects and stressors from one’s environment. Recently, due to Mwini’s condition, he lost six clients who were not patient with him when he got depressed and was unable to work due to his condition.
Muigai says bipolar disorders are common, serious yet treatable psychiatric illnesses. They are characterised by impairing episodes of mania and depression during the course of the illness as exhibition observers term Mwini’s use of mirrors and simple techniques, a series of explosive, pensive, radiant and stark artworks.
“The greatest hurdle to treating bipolar is stigma attached to mental illness, socio-economic barriers to care and poor social support,” says the psychiatrist. Asked if he is a mental health advocate, Mwini says: “My belief and I may be wrong is that if I dealt with myself, sorted myself out as that is all I can and I’m trying to do, then the world can be a better place.”
For Mwini, the arts are a form of healing through reflection and therapy. According to Muigai, the brain is subject to many biological processes, governed by numerous different genes and outside influences with scientific findings confirming this complexity. She says some discoveries are already leading to helpful therapies.
One of Mwini’s pieces is a suicide illustration of a mirror and a building. “I had to face my condition head-on using canvas, waste the thought of suicide and the desire to jump from buildings, to the point where I rubbished the idea,” he says. Muigai says a multi-dimensional approach is best used when treating bipolar disorders.
This is the bio-psycho-socio-model, whereby the patient is treated holistically. For management, psychiatrists adopt a three-phase treatment strategy namely acute, continuation and maintenance treatment.