Component Exploration

Three green gears working togetherComponent Exploration: “Inexplicable Maze”

Timing: 30 Minutes
Mode: In-Class; Online

Ashley T. is a young bisexual, Black, biracial woman diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder-Type two. The first component for this unit is her Inexplicable Maze painting  that expresses her experience trying to navigate a system that was not built for her. Additional components are her artist’s statement and interview and focus groups excerpts where she further unpacks her experience of being a Black woman committed to “shifting the narrative.”

Work through this powerful material by observing and considering the art alongside a careful read of Ashley T.’s artist’s statement, and focus group and interview excepts.

a black and white geometric painting of a maze that cannot be navigated
     Inexplicable Maze by Ashley T.

Artist’s Statement:

“Inexplicable Maze is a piece based on duality. It is both a self-portrait of my Bipolar Disorder and a reflection of society. As a self-portrait, it speaks to my Blackness, my mental health, and navigation for accessibility. As a reflection, it speaks to the arbitrary rules and borders put in place by society that, at first glance, appear to make sense and have order, but upon further inspection and interaction, these borders are seen as part of a bigger system that is made to confuse, abuse, and confine those who are marginalized. 

Inexplicable Maze illustrates both the frustrations of navigating one’s mental health, and the reality that this world was not built for me and others marginalized like me, it was built in spite of us, causing us to navigate life literally and figuratively within the margins.”

Interview Excerpts:

In a focus group conversation with other mad artists, Ashley shared the following (edited from original):

“This is the piece that I created for this study. It’s a diptych called the Inexplicable Maze. …It’s a piece that’s about the duality because I’m Bipolar-type two, I’m also Bisexual, and I’m also Black Biracial, so I have coined myself as the Bifecta… It’s a tongue in cheek of my branding but that’s how I’ve lived my life, is that I’ve always been too much and not enough at all times. And that’s the duality and the reality of my life. 

At first glance, it looks like the type of puzzle you would see in a puzzle book trying to get through the maze, but if you pay close attention, you can’t actually properly play this. You can’t actually escape it, you can’t go very far, and this is representative of how I feel with the arbitrary rules that are set primarily against racialized people, primarily against mad people, primarily against queer people, people with disabilities–all the folks who are marginalized. We are forced to play the game of all of the neurotypicals, all of the quote “normal” people, but they never set us up to win the game. If we get to a point where we surpass them, they change the rules and keep moving the goalpost. And that’s what this is. 

And it’s also very representative of my Bipolar Disorder because on the right side, you can see that it’s very angular it’s very straight cut, it’s direct and all the pieces fit together, but on the left side it’s slightly more whimsical and it’s curved and it’s creative. It’s both sides of how my brain works. I’m very analytical but I’m very creative and I’m always looking for deeper meaning in things, and so, this is in one way, a mirror held up to society of, “this is what you do to folks like me”…

I purposely painted it black as representative of me, while showing all the rules are forced on top of me, especially by whiteness and by colonial terms – colonial victories essentially. And as much as it’s a mirror up to society, it’s also a self-portrait because it’s all of the shapes and symbols that kind of look familiar, but they actually make no sense and they weirdly fit together and that’s kind of how my brain works. And I purposely made it a diptych instead of doing a 24” by 24” canvas because that’s how my life works, the right side is still a reality, the left side is still a reality and together they form their own reality. So, yeah that’s the inexplicability that remains.” 

In another interview, Ashley reflected on being involved in this project, and how it can be seen as a yet another colonization of her experience by the white establishment: 

A white establishment like York University is going to take my painting and say “We did a good thing, we talked to a Black lady. This Black lady gave us some sort of insight into what it is to be Black and Mad. But now we’re going to play broken telephone for the next 20 years about this painting and we’re going to make up everything we want, as it fits us and it fits our textbooks and it fits our way of studying and it fits our way of teaching and this painting will no longer be a part of her.” 

I’m okay with it, because if I stopped being okay with it, it continues to be the status quo. As laboring as it is, as tiring as it is, if people like me don’t continue to say “I know you’re going to fuck this up, but I have to keep trying” then we stay where we are. 

If people don’t sacrifice themselves in some way then nothing changes. It’s not fair that we have to sacrifice ourselves and sacrifice has looked many different ways, from physically sacrificing your life, to sacrificing your sanity, to sacrificing your professional status, to sacrificing so many things. As a Black woman I was born into sacrifice. It’s not a choice that I got to make. It is a birthright. That’s what it is to be a Black woman; sacrifice is your birthright. 

I have to be okay with this being used as a teaching element, because if I don’t allow myself to be okay with it, then all teaching elements will remain white. All teaching elements will remain male. All teaching elements will remain straight, all teaching elements will remain some sort of Christian…. I have to sacrifice myself as a steppingstone and create only to be ignored until the point where all the ignorance piles up and someone finally gets through the door. That’s what it is to be a Black woman, that’s what it is to be a Black woman at this point in time, that is what it is to be a Black woman in her 30s at this point in time.  I have to be a sacrifice, in order for the voice and the echo to carry through. Because if I decide to shut up, then the echo does not bounce, it does not continue, it does not make it out of the cavern.”

And later:

“I would love for us to get to a point where it didn’t have to be Black mental health versus white mental health, it’s a matter of us having a conversation about mental health. While realizing and accepting intersections and giving the resources that are necessary to fill the needs of those intersections. 

But it would be wonderful if it got to a point where my painting could be viewed on the website as a teaching tool for mental health, not as a signature for Black mental health. That’s the eventual hope, but we’re so far off from there because we’re only now discovering that Black people have mental health conditions. We are only now giving acknowledgement towards that.”