Empowering Culture and Mental Health Through Arts

Painting Description: ‘Terasing’, 2021. Fitri Fareez Ramli, acrylic on paper: “The circles with different colours in the painting represent different individuals. Many times, we always try to resonate with similar energy to others to interact even when we feel isolated.”

I remember when I decided to take a brush and paint to start my painting hobby a few years ago. It was back in 2016 when I worked as a doctor in a psychiatric institution in Malaysia. The first painting was a beta fish, as I was inspired by my sister, Lush. She loves this fish and used to have many of them. During this period, my paintings were generally inspired by what I observed from my surroundings, more literal than abstract. I painted many things, including the scenery from New Zealand that I visited in 2016. I thought it would be a cheaper option than buying the paintings.

As I just started my painting journey, I tried many mediums. I was not formally taught to paint other than those basics we learned at school; I just tried to paint according to what I felt was right. I would stop when I felt the painting looked good to me. I experimented with acrylics, watercolours, coloured pencils, and pens to visualise my imagination. Among those mediums, I fell in love with acrylics. The paint gives volume and texture to my paintings.

I had a cubicle at the office when working at the hospital, which I shared with another colleague. The cubicle was the first place that I exhibited my paintings. I pasted them on the wall so that my colleague could come and see them. I also created an online gallery to reach a wider audience. However, my painting interest only lasted for a year during this period. I got busy when I shifted to another psychiatric institution. Then, I was occupied with more work and study commitments when I joined the National University of Malaysia as a medical lecturer.

The urge to paint again resurfaced in 2021. I had just arrived in Oxford for my DPhil in Psychiatry study. During this period, I encountered many people from various backgrounds with strong opinions. Initially, I was trying to force myself to fit in, but over time I realised I needed to stop changing myself just to be part of the group. I told myself that I could change myself for a better me, but I needed a self-consent to do this.

This period inspired me to create a painting collection I called ‘Kembara’ or ‘journey’ in English. The art forms at this time were abstract. The Kembara collection initially consisted of nine paintings that I exhibited at St Cross College, University of Oxford, in March 2022. As the collection is partly inspired by my struggle with identity, I came up with the idea of incorporating cultural elements in the form of words. I named every painting with Malay words. I am Malaysian and used to study in Indonesia for my medical degree. So, I must say that the terms used might be from both countries because we share similar cultures. I also provided narratives for every painting so that people could relate the context to the paintings and their descriptions.

I added more paintings to the Kembara collection, including those from 2016 that I brought from Malaysia. I had the opportunity to exhibit my art pieces at St Cross College, University of Oxford and Education Malaysia London in October 2022 and February 2023 respectively. During this time, I used acrylic paper to paint as it was more convenient and portable. I continued sharing my art pieces and narratives with other people. I was glad to hear feedback that people could relate my artworks to their life experiences. I guess my emphasis on sharing vulnerability was a good move, as this is something we often kept to ourselves. Bringing this issue indirectly through arts somehow created additional room for people to open up.

I stopped painting for a while and then resumed a few months later. This time, I changed my usual painting medium from acrylic paper to a larger canvas for more satisfactory visuals. It took me longer than usual to create this collection. I named this collection ‘Suratan’, which means destiny. I incorporated various messages through narratives. There were ten paintings in this collection. One painting called ‘Akar’, or ‘Roots’ in English, conveys a powerful message about how we need to appreciate identity. It is impossible for us to change our background. I was born Asian, so I could not change the fact that I am Asian. But what I can do is to embrace my identity and culture. The collection was inspired by my personal experiences and readings from literature. Other messages include mental health and climate change. I managed to exhibit the Suratan collection at Royal Lancaster London and St Cross College, University of Oxford in August and September this year. I was glad to have diverse audiences to convey the messages from the art pieces.

These opportunities secured me another chance to exhibit at the National Army Museum during a special event. I brought 13 paintings to showcase my works there in mid-October this year. Four of the paintings are from my recent collection ‘Kiriman’. Kiriman means ‘bequeath’, or ‘something special sent or passed down to us’. It is an appreciation and gratitude for the experiences and gifts of life that I received. The message I tried to convey from this collection is related to Malay cultural elements. One painting called ‘Mentera’ portrayed the Malay warrior spirit with paddy elements. Paddy is often used in Malay proverbs, carrying numerous meanings related to family relationships, community leadership, good morals, and economic resources. Another art piece, ‘Gerbang’, meaning ‘gate’ or ‘door’, is dedicated to my parents and supervisor, Prof Philip Cowen, who opened up various opportunities for me.

I am using art to convert the negative energy into positive. I believe the arts can help me to express complex emotions. I guess my art interest is partly influenced by what I have been doing in my work life. I worked as a medical doctor before in two psychiatric institutions in Malaysia. I am currently a DPhil in Psychiatry student at the University of Oxford investigating the effects of lithium and lithium-mimetic drugs on emotions and brain chemicals. I hope to continue painting to bring numerous powerful messages to diverse audiences.

The recent exhibition at the National Army Museum, London, on the 12th of October, 2023.

One of the paintings from the Kembara collection entitled ‘Teruja’ or excited portraying excited emotion when I arrived in Oxford. Alternatively, the painting can be viewed as excited neurons.

One of the paintings from the Suratan collection entitled ‘Akar’ or Roots portrays exceptional mangrove roots thriving in harsh weather and salty sea environments.

I named this painting ‘Perasaan’, which means ‘feeling’, to picture various emotions I experienced in the first few months in Oxford: excited, happy, and sorrowful. Also, the colours in the picture represent the people with various backgrounds and perspectives that I met here.