Islam was born in Manchester, Lancashire, England to a “non-Sylheti“Bangladeshi parents. Islam’s father died when she was eight months old, at the time her mother was in her mid 20s with three children under the age of four. Islam and her sisters were brought up by their mother and step-father. Her mother was a social worker in Manchester and Oldham.
From 1977 to 1984, Islam attended Amberleigh Preparatory School. From 1984 to 1991, she attended Chorlton Convent High School for Girls. In June 1991, she completed A-levels in Art, English Literature, History at Loreto College in Manchester. In June 1992, she completed an Art foundation diploma at Manchester Metropolitan University.
In September 1996, Islam graduated from the London School of Economics, University of London with a BSc in International History and a MSc in Comparative Politics. In February 1998, she completed an MA in Directing and Screenwriting sponsored by Channel 4 at the Northern Media School at Sheffield Hallam University. She then enrolled for BA in Fine Art Practice and Theory of Visual Art at Chelsea College of Art and Design and dropped out in her second year.
From 1996 to 1998, Islam had a short career working as researcher in television for London Weekend Television. In 1998, Islam participated in the group show 000 at the Whitechapel Art Gallery. Later, during a show of her drawings and paintings, she was told she would have to be at the gallery full-time. Islam decided to take her practice to the public.
People came to the gallery and were more interested in watching Islam paint, which urged Islam to combine live painting, live visuals and live music. In January 1999, Pigment Explosion was initially set up to perform live art events, but now specialises in international art projects. Since 1999, Pigment Explosion has branched out into projects that include film, painting, drawing, writing and photography.
Islam has done nearly 100 group and solo shows in London, Paris, New York and Bangladesh. She has written 15 books and two plays as well as readings tours with writers like Irvine Welsh and Miranda Sawyer. She has worked with the British Council, on projects with the elderly, workshops in schools and with disadvantaged children. She has directed and/or produced 17 films, in London, New York, Paris, Bangladesh, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur, Rome, India, Pakistan, Frankfurt, Nepal, Cambodia, Vietnam, Barcelona and Miami; they have been exhibited and screened in these places excluding Nepal, Cambodia, Vietnam, Barcelona and Miami. Her films and books, which combine text and drawings, have been funded by the Arts Council, BBC, British Council and Commonwealth Institute.
She was an artist in residence at the Whitechapel Art Gallery between 2003 and 2004, she was artist in residence at the Open Gallery from 2004 to 2008, and also worked as an artist in residence at TVF Media from 2004 to 2009. She was also artist in resident at Artscape and Shoreditch House and her art features in various venues around London such as Sketch, Mark Hix‘s restaurant and she was commissioned to do over one hundred paintings for Clifton Hotel Group in Bristol.
In 2010, the UK Film Council commissioned Islam’s animated film The White Wall. In 2010 and 2011 the theatre group Estaca Zero Teatro in Portugal performed two of Islam’s plays, The Suitcase and Hello.
In March 2013, she had a mid-career retrospective at Rich Mix. KAOS (TrActor’s sister organisation) awarded her a grant to complete the second scroll project with patients suffering from mental health problems in Brussels 2014. Rich Mix has invited Pigment Explosion again to exhibit this second scroll and write/perform a play about art, madness and disability, the show is scheduled in June 2015. In March of the same year, she was interviewed by Nadia Ali on BBC Asian Network about her exhibition The Rebel Within.
In January 2015, Muswell Hill Press published her new book, written under the pseudonym Q.S Lam, Schizophrenics Can Be Good Mothers Too. In June 2015, the book was launched in London at Shoreditch House and Rich Mix. Islam lives and works in East London, is married and has two sons. Her husband is of Swedish descent.
Schizophrenics Can Be Good Mothers Too Exhibition 2009
The artist explains some of the ideas behind the exhibition in a moving and intimate series of reflections on a selection of the artworks
Wall 1: Mother and child sketches
In 2009 I suffered my first psychotic episode, I thought it was a mental aberration, but then it struck a second time in 2010. After a period of recovery I fell pregnant, but was never forewarned that I might be vulnerable to postpartum psychosis.
Throughout my pregnancy I worked on creating and delivering my animation film White Wall for the UK Film Council. Three days after I gave birth psychosis struck and my life changed irrevocably.
I was kept in hospital for one month, in a mother and baby psychiatric unit in Brussels, my mental health deteriorated, I had to act ‘normal’ to ensure release.
When I got home psychosis was never far away, I suffered multiple visions when I breastfeed or if I was sleep deprived. I had very little mental health support, but I learnt to recognise the patterns inherent within psychosis and realised the only thing that would help me would be to draw. I drew anything, the view from my hospital window and then my focus was my new-born baby.
I began to assiduously draw my baby as he breast fed or slept. I made a second book when my second child was born and postpartum psychosis struck again.
Making these drawings, each and every one of them, kept me well and silenced ‘Fred’ the negative voice in my head.
The oil paintings are part of a series that began when the children were still in the womb.
I am painting one oil painting of them each year until they are 18 and the idea is that the 18 portraits will make up one composite piece.
I have also included colour pencil portrait studies of the children.
I have also included drawings of my parents, because without them I wouldn’t be here and nor my children, my mother perhaps carried the mad gene and passed it onto me and thereby I may have passed it on to my children.
Can we break the cycle? I hope so through education and art – I think it is possible.
Wall 2: Postcards
While working in Brussels I participated in ‘Return to Sender’ at the Contemporary Arts Centre in Brussels, which consisted of an exhibition of various artists who each created a postcard.
Every artist involved had some history or link with mental health issues.
After creating my first one, I found the experience so positive that I decided to continue and hence my 1000 Postcards project was born.
As a mother with mental health problems and two small children, finding time and space to make my art can be difficult, creating a postcard is possible given my time constraints.
Very soon my young son became involved in the project, he would create squiggles and I would then transform them into ethereal landscapes replete with dragons or dinosaurs, Lego figures, poems and lines of wisdom etc. The postcard project has helped to cement the bond between us.
So far I have created 180. Some are drawn, others painted, I even created one in response to the Charlie Hebdo massacre, I realise the postcard can be a simple but powerful art form.
Wall 3: White Wall and Dragon Story – the realm of the fantasy
I have included this work because the realm of the fantasy has been an important part of my recovery. After my first psychosis in 2009 and 2010 working on my animation film White Wall, for the UK Film Council, helped to heal my broken mind since the film is about a little girl with mental health problems.
Similarly the Tree People is a story I wrote when I was 23, but due to my mental health issues I have never done anything with it, like many of the books I have written I just shoved it in a drawer, I then re-visited it thinking that my children would appreciate the story and this motivated me to create a colour version of the original black and white drawings.
I now hope to turn both of them into books for children. I want to write stories for children about people with mental health issues, environmental issues and write about ‘brown’ families or set stories in Bangladesh.
I am sure many of my mental health problems stem from this sense of not fitting, or belonging, or counting or being heard or represented.
Wall 4: Text, brain sketchbooks, Fred paintings and war
Shortly before and since the psychosis text has been an intrinsic part of my practise as an artist.
Text now features on my paintings, in my drawings, sketchbooks and scrolls.
People often ask why do I write so small? To which I reply it is because I need to get the stuff out of my head, but I don’t necessarily want people to read it.
Some of the text pieces were made when I have been emotionally very distressed.
The brain sketchbooks all feature, text, a level of colour abstraction and drawing.
People would often look at my sketchbooks and want to buy them, but they will never be for sale, but here they are in this exhibition for people to examine.
The Fred portrait is the closest I have ever got to visually depicting Fred, ‘the negative voice in my head’.
I do believe that this painting is very sinister.
The abstract colour paintings are examples of pure expression and emotion. The band Polar Bear commissioned these particular paintings for their album cover.
Working with colour in its pure form does have a palliative impact on my brain.
My Bosnian war paintings, created over the last twenty years, reflect my on-going interest in warfare both historical, actual and internal psychological warfare.
Often it does feel as if I am going to war with Fred each day of my life. These paintings were the inspiration for my trilogy of war scrolls.
Wall 5: Photography and self-portraits
I have included a series of photographic portraits of Mia, my glamorous alter ego.
There are also portraits of the patients I worked with in Brussels and KAOS with the photographer Lieven van Meulder. These same patients created a second scroll entitled ‘War on a Scroll Part 1’ which will be displayed on the opening night.
The wall also features Lieven’s portraits of the patients. His style is very different from mine. During my time working with KAOS and the patients in Brussels Lieven and I formed a friendship, we could talk about psychosis and he taught me a great deal about photography. I wanted to showcase his work as part of the exhibition.
Lieven and I have embarked on a separate project where I began taking portraits of him and he, in turn, took portraits of me. In essence two ‘so- called’ mad people taking portraits of one another, exploring notions of madness.
I have also included a series of drawn self portraits with the photographic portraits to raise further questions about the external image we project to the world and the other image we hide.
‘War on a Scroll Part 1’ is the first in a trilogy of scrolls that I have been creating about war. Image © Sanchita Islam
I created four scrolls during the postpartum period. I made three of them with my son, the idea was to cement our bond and create a work that could help me cut through the psychosis that kept on threatening the relationship with my son and also create something magical and indelible and special.
‘War on a Scroll Part 1’ is the first in a trilogy of scrolls that I have been creating about war.
I have always been interested in the futility of war and the importance of documenting it, so this war scroll project is my attempt at depicting all wars, past and present, on three scrolls.
The first in the series also depicts the internal psychological warfare experienced by the patients I worked with at KAOS in Brussels, juxtaposed with actual warfare.
I would argue one step further that internal mental war can lead to actual war and senseless acts of violence, so having a level of mental peace will go a long way towards actual peace globally.