For nine years, the Scottish Mental Health Arts & Film Festival has been consistently passionate in its ambitions to engage artists, connect with communities and celebrate the achievements of people with experience of mental health issues. In doing so, the events of the festival continue to challenge stigma and discrimination, educate audiences and encourage participation in the creation of further artistic endeavours that will empower people within both their localised communities and society at large.

SMHAFF, therefore, is not a general arts festival but one intrinsically linked to – as well as informed and influenced by – social justice issues, in this case those relating to the impact of mental ill-health and the promotion of mental wellbeing.

SMHAFF is far from alone. A quick Google search will reveal a growing number of social justice arts festivals across the world, each campaigning for greater awareness of their chosen causes. Yet, this in itself raises questions concerning the purpose of art. Should artists and, by extension, arts festivals so regularly and avowedly focus on, champion and campaign about social justice issues? Can art not simply be for art’s sake? Are there now too many social justice arts festivals, drowning out one another’s voices in the battle to be heard?

These, in some ways, are questions that SMHAFF has itself already asked. In May 2015, the Festival and the Mental Health Foundation staged a conference at Glasgow’s Centre for Contemporary Arts. The Dust of Everyday Life initiated conversations about the relationship between the arts and social justice issues. The conference produced findings that will help shape future festivals, notably next year when SMHAFF celebrates its tenth anniversary.

The conversation remains ongoing, but this relationship between the arts and social justice can clearly be seen within the programme for this year’s Festival. Artists and community members from all backgrounds have again created a hugely varied programme of events that reflect their lives. Consequently, they share with each other the experiences, both positive and negative, that they have in common, while adopting the arts as a medium by which to present these experiences to people who may previously have had little understanding of, or sympathy for, the issues raised by them.

Social justice arts festivals, then, encompass a wide range of artistic genres employed to raise broader consciousness of the circumstances faced by individuals and sections of society. Moreover, they also aim to act as a catalyst for motivating all participants – whether artists or audiences – to not only build communities but to challenge and change social injustices at a wider level.

The intention of all art is, almost inarguably, to communicate. The artistic expressions represented at SMHAFF take communication a stage further. Whether working in groups or as individuals, artists, writers, musicians and community art groups not only present their own personal experiences of mental health, but positively encourage audiences to participate – to become aware, to understand, and to take a message out into the world where it can continue to educate others – and, potentially, effect change for good. Their work can help to eradicate misperceptions and intolerance within society as a whole.

All art, but perhaps particularly that which is stimulated by concerns for social justice, acts as both a window and a mirror. For the onlooker, art becomes a window into worlds to which they may not previously have had access; it can reveal to them the experiences and challenges endured – or, indeed, the opportunities enjoyed – by others within their community. And art also acts as a mirror in which we see ourselves reflected against the world, inspiring consideration of our place within it and often provoking the positive realisation that others share struggles similar to the ones we face. As a result, social justice art tells us a glorious truth – none of us are alone. And if like-minded people band together, drawn to each other by a mutual appreciation or creation of the art that depicts our lives, we can work towards change and the correction of social injustice wherever it is found.

Kathy Leichter, whose film Here One Day won best Long Documentary and the joint Jury Prize at SMHAFF’s 2014 International Film Awards, puts this sentiment succinctly. Speaking about her film, she said that it is: ‘so personal and up-close that it invites others to open up and to share their stories – of all kinds. It gives them permission. This is how we will change the world: through our stories.’

Kathy went on to say: ‘I believe it is so important to get these stories out into the open. I applaud SMHAFF for doing that. It’s commendable and courageous that the festival brings together such diverse voices and aesthetic approaches from all over the world, who are defining mental health … far beyond the labels and the diagnoses, focussing rather on the experiences of the characters in each story.’

And this is why SMHAFF, like many other social justice arts festivals, remains so vitally important. It provides a forum in which people are encouraged to open a window that allows the world to look in and witness their lives – to tell their stories. Furthermore, it enables us all to peer into the mirrors of others’ artwork and discover the extent to which their experiences match our own. And by stimulating such cultural communication between all participants, SMHAFF, like all social justice arts festivals, can hope – in words borrowed from Brandeis University’s Arts and Social Justice programme – to transcend ‘boundaries and nurture the ethical imagination.’

All highly laudable. However, again it begs the question: should artists and arts festivals always ally themselves to social justice issues? Well, no. There is time and space enough for general arts festivals too, and for art that exists simply for art’s sake.

However, when art and social justice issues do combine, when artists and activists come together, festivals like SMHAFF can help transform the lives of countless individuals, and, in doing so, strengthen and better the collective soul of society. And that, putting it mildly, represents an extraordinarily wonderful thing indeed.


Written by Mark Jones


Kathy Leichter's SMHAFF Jury Prize-winning film Here One Day is screening as part of Headspace's Launch Event in Glasgow. It takes place from 4-10pm on Sat 10 Oct at Platform, The Bridge, 1000 Waterhouse Road, Glasgow G34 9JW. To book this free event, call 0141 276 9696 (opt 1).