We Are Together: Nengi Omuku in the Family Room at Eileen Skellern 1

“I couldn’t have imagined a more apt cause for my practice at this moment than this. When I first heard about the project I thought it was absolutely genius because many artists for centuries have used their work to express and survive challenging periods. Art and creativity, in general, can also play a part in the recovery process of patients, and the various art workshops run by Hospital Rooms are also vital.”

— Nengi Omuku

Nengi Omuku is an artist who lives and works in Nigeria. She participated in our recent project at Eileen Skellern 1, a Psychiatric Intensive Care Unit for women at Maudsley Hospital, taking part in the co-production process via Skype and then flying over to work on site for three weeks. Her work often explores the politics of the body and themes surrounding identity and difference. Speaking about her working practice, Nengi states:

“With every journey, I consider how human beings position ourselves in space in relation to other beings. Foremost on my mind are the ways in which the body needs to adapt in order to belong. It is constantly selecting and gathering its identity, mentally, physically and emotionally.” 

Nengi painted a large scale mural in the Family Room for Eileen Skellern 1. She used special water soluble oil paints, to avoid the need for powerful solvents like white spirit, and created an abstract image of three figures offering one another comfort and care.

In an interview for the online platform SHOWstudio, Nengi Omuku provides an insight into her experience of working at Eileen Skellern 1, her creative process and her sources of inspiration for the beautiful work she created:

“Being at the unit felt like a residency. The consultants and service providers were extremely helpful in answering questions I had about the different types of mental illness, possible causes, and their effects on patients. They also enlightened me about mental health care and the high percentage of recovery. It also felt like a residency because the family room isn’t on the main unit, so I worked uninterrupted in that space for nearly three weeks.

In the first week, I spent a bit of time on the drawing, picking a background colour from the Dulux range and finally painting the background. The next two weeks, I treated the Family Room as a studio. I got in at about 10:30am and painted directly onto the walls with oil paints until about 8:30pm. It was a bit tricky getting in and out because it is a locked unit so I made sure to bring everything I needed to limit the back and forth.

Nengi Omuku’s completed wall painting, ‘Blangidi’, in the Family Room at Eileen Skellern 1.

Nengi Omuku’s completed wall painting, ‘Blangidi’, in the Family Room at Eileen Skellern 1.

My work is on the border between abstraction and figuration and for this project, I toned down the figurative element even further. I paint the body as patches of colour and form; this comes from a desire to show the human body as fragmented, a feeling that began when I moved from Nigeria to England. The fragmentation is a blending of worlds and experiences represented by colour and form, all attempting to hold together. The question of identity was foremost on my mind, as well as a desire to express varied notions of myself as defined by my experiences. For this project, overt references to the human body, therefore, had to be taken down a notch, because this feeling of fragmentation and alienation is something I believe some of the patients might have been able to relate to. In the past, I have painted about encounters with people with mental illness in Nigeria. It came from my own experiences of dealing with challenging situations and figuring out the ways I needed to mentally adapt in order to exist. 

The painting was inspired by the name of the room. It is based on two abstract bodies who cater to a central reclined figure, all surrounded by a fabric, ‘Blangidi’. This fabric was introduced to southern Nigeria, my home, by European merchants who used it as a blanket. It however took on new meaning upon entering the area and became a ceremonial dress that has come to define every major family event. It is a symbol that says, ’we are together’. The bodies in the painting blend into one another and become a continuous form. They are encircled by the fabric which further intertwines them, creating oneness between material and body.”  

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Whilst work at Eileen Skellern 1 was still in progress, Channel 4 News filmed a special feature about Hospital Rooms, focussing particularly on our projects at Eileen Skellern 1 and Snowsfields Adolescent Unit, both of which are part of The Maudsley Hospital in South London. Nengi Omuku appears in the feature, speaking about the work she was creating for the Family Room. The video is still available to watch here.

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At the 2018 Design in Mental Health Network in Birmingham, Hospital Rooms and staff from Eileen Skellern 1 delivered a presentation about our joint project, explaining the process of coproduction and sharing the work of our commissioned artists, including Nengi Omuku.

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In an interview for Shades of Noir, Nengi speaks with Yasmine Akim about working with Hospital Rooms and the work she created at Eileen Skellern 1. Shades of Noir provokes, challenges and encourages dialogue and cultural value in the subjects of race. You can watch Nengi’s interview here.

On the Show Studio website you can discover more great interviews with our artists from our project at Eileen Skellern 1 as wells as our very first project at Phoenix Unit, a psychiatric rehabilitation unit.

Without the generosity and support of Hospital Rooms’ friends and donors our work would not be possible. Demand for our projects is soaring and we now have a waiting list of over 30 mental health units nationwide who want to give their patients the opportunity to experience the benefits of a stimulating, art-filled environment.

We recently launched a Benefactor’s Scheme, providing more options for how you can show your support and help us to transform more NHS mental health care environments across the UK. With your support we can make a difference.