Unmasked Women is a project which aims to channel “the Black British female experience through creatives.” The first phase took place from the 2nd – 4th of September, in the form of an exhibition about black mental health, curated by Nicole Crenstil. Its purpose was “to creatively document and showcase the work of several artists, whilst creating a safe and open platform for further discussion”.
It all started with Nicole Crenstil’s mother, a seamstress with a passion for design, textiles, and art. She taught the future founder of Unmasked Women how to sew. She encouraged her creativity and supported her personal ambition, despite a lot of her family preferring she study law or become a doctor, for example.
Nicole: I’m most passionate about creativity, expression of the Arts and design. It probably all began because I studied Product and Furniture at University, Nottingham Trent, but I’m from London. My mum is a seamstress and she taught me how to sew and she’s always been interested in design and textiles. It’s sort of always been in my family, to be creative and to be expressive.
Fast forward to 2015, Nicole made a New Years resolution that stuck; she wanted to curate an exhibition and in 2016, inspired by personal experience, Unmasked Women was born.
Nicole: The idea really refined itself, I knew I wanted to do an exhibition, I knew I wanted to do it for women and I knew it had to have more of a purpose to it, rather than just a pretty art exhibition. I wanted it to be really meaningful, and for people to walk away from it understanding something new. It refined itself to being an exhibition about me. Exploring something that I already know; I am a young black woman, I am a creative and I have dealt with issues relating to mental health.
Sharing experience is what brings humans closer together, it is what strengthens bodies of people. Sharing experience is how we learn from each other, it is how we don’t make the same mistakes or fall into the same traps as the people before us. It is how we develop a stronger appreciation and understanding of each other. It is a way in which nobody has to feel isolated, but rather reassured by the fact that they are not alone. It is how communities grow and progress.
Nicole: I always say this is a very social project, I want it to be inclusive, I want to get businesses involved, I want to get various artists involved. Essentially, this project is for me, it’s a very personal project. I couldn’t think of anyone better to do it than yourself, so when people try to challenge it and say “well why are you doing it just about black women?” and “why aren’t you doing it about white women?” Well, I’m not a white woman, so quite naturally I’ll do it about what I know and what I know, is people that are like myself. So that’s how I came up with the idea, and I found that a lot of black women creatives weren’t really being supported. Whether it was by the media, or press, or organisations or funding and I wanted this to be for absolutely anyone. You don’t have to be a world-renowned artist or an up-and-coming whatever-whatever. You just have to be someone who is good at what they do and care about the issues at hand.
And when we share experience, we spark a conversation that has the power to go beyond us and make a difference outside of our own circles…
Nicole: [I want the] press, media, general practices, therapists, local businesses, charities to really come together and to really understand what more we can do to further push the conversation about black mental health. I’m hoping that people who come will want to learn more as well, what is it about black mental health that we need to discuss? To see how we can make this conversation national is what I really wanted; for the progress to happen past what I’m doing. As well as that, I am always thinking about other organisations and social groups that could be involved with this because I’m all about helping more people than one.
Once the conversation has been sparked, the passion behind the voices carrying it must ensure that its flame continues to burn. It cannot die, if the conversation dies, so does the motivation.
Nicole: You can’t really start a conversation and just let it fizzle out. You’ve got to keep it going. I would like these professionals in their fields to talk about it further. What more can we do to address the issues surrounding black women, what can therapists do, what can journalists and writers do? I want the conversation to surpass the panel discussion. I don’t want people to come to this and feel as if the conversation will end here.
So if passion is required to keep a conversation burning, then surely all involved must share this same passion and have a unanimous understanding of the vision?
Nicole: It meant a lot to me that the artists I worked with understood the message, that they were advocates and that they supported it. I wanted it to be someone who was good at what they did and cared about the issues at hand. So I carefully curated and selected each artist and had conversations like this to make sure they understood where I was coming from, that it wasn’t just something I just thought up, that it was a passion of mine and I wanted them to represent throughout.
When it comes to finding and connecting with like-minded people, in this digital age, social media is one of our greatest tools.
Nicole: I’m gonna have to big up Twitter! Twitter was probably and is still the main source for all of my communication. Everyone else I kind of found through going to their exhibitions or I’d come across them on Twitter and just be like “hey, I really like your work, let’s get in touch!”. Or word of mouth really, someone might say to me “I’ve just seen this great piece of work, I thought you might really like it.” So I would say being online, was probably my biggest tool to finding these artists and getting to know them on a level where we become more than just us working together, we become good friends. That’s how I really interact with everyone initially.
An obstacle for many who pursue careers as creatives or those who do work for the love of something is having to work a job you hate, in order to facilitate the work that you love. In order to fund the work that you deem necessary, or in order to survive, to then be able to do the work.
Nicole: I was just starting a new job in January, when I had already begun the makings of Unmasked. I found it quite frustrating that I was doing this PR job 5 days a week, and I didn’t have any time to really do what I really enjoyed, which was Unmasked. I tried to juggle something that I really loved doing, and something that I did not like doing, and tried to make it work somehow. Eventually, I just went full throttle and said right, I need to go forth with this.
[Before I got the job at The Artworks] I almost quit Unmasked, it was too much and too expensive. It’s only when I was looking for an exhibition space, I came through this company called ‘Somewhere to’, and the first place they cc’ed me into was Artworks Elephant. Whilst I was going through an approval process for that, I was just on the website wondering what it was about and then I saw the job role. So I thought “apply for the job, you never know.” I applied for the job, interviewed for the job and then got the job! Here I get to do what I like to do in this really cool space and plan out my exhibition as well, so it’s worked out really well in my favour. Killing two birds with one stone is something I’ve been doing constantly with Artworks.
Not many things in life come without obstacles, but obstacles are overcome and they are lessons that contribute to our progression as people. Nicole has been on a journey with Unmasked, a journey whose destination revealed itself, just as blocked roads cleared to make way for all she was to achieve. Was it destiny?
Nicole: Dude! Dude! I couldn’t be a bigger believer, I swear to you! I was thinking “I really want to put more effort and time into Unmasked” and the way it all just happened, is just unreal! I definitely believe so much that it has happened for a reason, the reason why I’m doing this job is so I can do Unmasked. The fact that I didn’t have the ability or the timescale in the other job, means so much to the fact that I’m doing this all here now. It’s just all worked out really really well in my favour. It is definitely fate, definitely God’s work, definitely, something happened. I’m constantly just saying thanks because it’s ridiculous!
What about the future? What happens after today? How does this evolve? How can the idea be innovated?
Nicole: I’m definitely predominantly keeping it to black women, Unmasked Women, and potentially diversifying into Unmasked Men. As I’ve been doing a lot of research for Unmasked Women, I’ve been finding that men have been continuously coming up in the conversation. I even created a Twitter name for Unmasked Men, just in case somebody else tried to create it! In case I wanted to do it next year because the conversation about men in relation to black mental health is… wow, there is so much there.
With Unmasked Women, other than mental health, I wanted to discuss issues relating to self-love and self-affirmation. I wanted it also to be about things I know I struggle with, like being the only black woman in the workplace. How you deal with social-cultural changes and shifts within university and the workspace. How you represent yourself as a black woman within these spaces.
So after all the work, the progression and the innovation has been done, and as it continues. What does the future hold for the social progression of black mental health?
Nicole: I want the mindset behind black mental health to change, although it’ll be a long time running. I want mental health to get to a level where it’s not okay, not to be okay. I want us to be able to easily get up and say “I’m going to get a mental health check, I’m going to speak to a therapist, I’m going to speak to a counsellor.”
The conversation about black mental health is so diminished, it’s so not talked about, it’s so quietened down. Culturally, it’s really hard for people to get up and go to the clinic and just say “I’m having these issues.” I want what I’m doing to be the start of moralising something that has become so demoralised. In so many vast ways, black mental health is still seen as a taboo within the community. It’s still seen as being demonic, it’s still seen as being “you can’t control your mind” and that kind of thought process is really sad. I want mental health to be as normal as any other health issue. So if you were to get a cut on your leg, you should be treated with the same quickness and ease when it comes to your with mental health.
Written by Charisse Chikwiri, Twitter: @CharisseeC.
Photography by Holly Marie Cato.