The art of fragility and resilience

Caitilin Punshon
There is a special place in the grounds of the University of Melbourne. It is called The Dax Centre. This is where the Cunningham Dax Collection of art is held. All the art in this collection has been created by people with experience of mental illness and trauma. A visit to The Dax Centre gallery can be confronting. However, the art there can teach us a lot about the human experience. Looking at it may cause sad thoughts. But hope can always be found in the exhibitions too.
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Caitilin Punshon on 15/07/2013
Brightly coloured paints on a paintbrush

All the art in this collection has been created by people with experience of mental illness and trauma.

Among the muddle of buildings in the grounds of the University of Melbourne is a place of special importance. It is a place of learning although it is neither a laboratory nor a lecture hall. It is a place that invites contemplation but it is not a chapel or a temple. In this place, the difficulties and complexities that colour our lives are revealed. Yet here you may also find glimpses of their healing.

This is The Dax Centre and it is home to an exceptional collection of art that is one of the three largest of its kind in the world. What makes it so significant is that all the art in the Cunningham Dax Collection has been created by people with experience of mental illness and psychological trauma. More than half of these works were made during art therapy sessions in Victoria's psychiatric hospitals. Intriguing and diverse, they offer a rare insight into both the fragility and resilience in all of us.

Visiting The Dax Centre

A visit to The Dax Centre may prompt a range of responses. In the bright space of the gallery, you are likely to encounter art that is challenging, confronting and even disturbing. Yet other works might fascinate, delight, console or inspire you. Chances are you will feel some mixture of these things. Rewarding though it may be, this is not always an easy place to visit.

It can be quite overwhelming, acknowledges exhibitions manager Juliette Hanson. All of the works can tell us so much. 

The Cunningham Dax Collection

Many of the 15,000 drawings, paintings, photographs, textiles and ceramics in the Cunningham Dax Collection explore the depths and dimensions of mental illness. They encompass everything from darkest despair to tentative recovery. Other works depict haunting experiences of the Holocaust or are meditations on mortality from artists living with terminal illnesses. There are also a number of drawings by children who survived the Indian Ocean tsunami.

These are difficult themes and this is difficult art. But it was the view of Dr Eric Cunningham Dax that such art has therapeutic value. The man for whom both the Centre and the Collection are named believed art could help ease suffering among his patients by enabling the expression of intense emotion. As a pioneering psychiatrist, he was one of the earliest advocates for art therapy. Later he came to see that art created in these circumstances may be helpful in educating people about mental illness. These ideas remain at the heart of The Dax Centre's mission today.

Learning through engaging with art

Extensive education programs are taught at The Dax Centre to students of all levels, as well as to health care professionals and the general public. These address some of the issues raised by works in both permanent and temporary exhibitions. In Juliette's eyes, however, it is through engaging with the art itself that learning can occur.

Often people who have no knowledge of mental illness or what it can mean may presume that people who

have that experience are not able people, she says. The fact the artists we have here have created such amazing, just technically superb in many cases, incredibly powerful, eloquent expressions, I think that is a great way of removing stigma.

Historical views, different meanings

Yet as Juliette explains, the way the art in the collection is seen has altered over time. It was very much Dr Dax's belief that you could really see a person's mental state through looking at the artwork and it's a history that we still have to reflect on and be conscious of here, she observes.

The works were used as diagnostic tools in the past. We don't present them in that way any more because we're more cognisant that the meaning of them is not necessarily straightforward and will be different for everybody that views them.

The ethics of exhibiting

Nevertheless, the art made in therapy sessions in an institutional setting was never intended for exhibition. This raises some ethical questions for the custodians of this collection.

It's a sensitive issue, Juliette admits. We have to protect the privacy at all costs. But we have to make the works meaningful enough to justify the exhibition and for people to have a learning experience there. So it's a fine line but one that I think we do take every measure to follow as strictly as we can.

Showing respect

It really does come back to this point of not framing the artwork in any other way than how the artist has intended, she continues. And where we don't know what was intended, not labeling it or framing it in any way that might be seen as disrespectful or presumptuous or misinformed.

This sense of respect is evident in everything The Dax Centre does. First and foremost it is shown through regard for the integrity, confidentiality and experience of the artists. But respect is also given to the artworks and to those who choose view them. This includes an appreciation that such a choice may not be right for everyone.

Accessibility at The Dax Centre

Those who do wish to visit the gallery at The Dax Centre will be pleased to know the space is wheelchair accessible. An innovative new multimedia guide is also currently under development and should be available to visitors from August. This guide will include audio commentary by artists, art historians, mental health clinicians and other specialists on selected works from the Cunningham Dax Collection. It will also feature visual and interactive components including additional works by artists and links to relevant websites.

Usually the guide just accompanies the semi-permanent exhibition, Juliette says. But at the end of September the temporary exhibition The Emotional World of Children will have multimedia guide content also.

She notes that in order to protect content, the multimedia guide will only be accessible within the gallery space. It will be available for free on iPhones, iPads or android devices, which visitors can bring with them or borrow without charge at the gallery.

The important aspect of hope

A visit to The Dax Centre will almost certainly provoke some sombre reflections. Yet it is ultimately an enriching experience, and Juliette encourages viewers to look beyond any sadness or gloom.

In each individual exhibition it's fair to say that we like to include some aspect of hope. Often it's the creation of the artwork that itself is the hopeful aspect or the thing that has allowed the artists to process any thoughts or emotions that otherwise may not have been able to be expressed at all, she says.

In many cases, the artwork has give the artists a voice to do that and the fact that the exhibitions are actually taking place, that people can come and visit them, I think has an extremely positive thrust as well.

Further information about The Dax Centre including details of current exhibitions and opening hours can be found at their website,

Readers comments (4)

Thanks for bringing this interesting subject to our attention. I am going to try and get to the Dax centre and see the exhibition for myself.

Hello Peter. Thanks for your comment on my article. I'm glad to hear you are considering a visit to The Dax Centre. I hope it is a positive experience for you. I'd be interested to read about your visit if you would care to leave another comment after you have been there. Enjoy.

I finally made it to the Dax centre to see the Cunningham Dax art collection. One of the themes of the collection was reverie which means being lost in thought or dream. The collection was not as dark as I thought it would be though some of the images were haunting. A lot of the paintings seemed to express hope, optimism and acceptance. My favourite part of the collection was a series of black and white paintings comprised of intricate markings that reminded me of geometrical patterns. There are also artistic statements written in text by some of the artists that help you understand where the artists are coming from. Among the statements is a quote from a psychiatrist who believes in the therapeutic value of painting. If I remember it correctly the psychiatrist states we need time and solitude to reflect on our traumatic experiences so we can reorganise our beliefs and emotions into patterns that help us deal with our accumulated anguish. He believes painting an ideal way to achieve this. If you have some spare time or are in the vicinity on Melbourne University I would recommend dropping into the Dax centre to view this intriguing collection of paintings. Thanks again Caitilin for bringing the Cunningham Dax collection to our attention.

Thanks for sharing your experience of visiting The Dax Centre, Peter. I'm really glad you found it so worthwhile. The Reverie exhibition is a really lovely one. You can find my review of it on this website. Thanks again for your comments.

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