As the new Community Engagement Officer here at Bethlem, writing my first In the Frame post seems like a somewhat daunting task. I’m lucky enough to have had some previous experience of the collections here but, with around 1,000 artworks to choose from, there is still so much more to uncover and explore.
I first came across the pottery of Bibi Herrera in 2008 while curating an exhibition at the Museum of Croydon. Bibi’s pots come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, all with colourful and eye-catching designs. I particularly like ‘Electric’ as the vibrant lines and colours to me seem to signify life, growth and positivity. In many of Bibi’s works, you can see the influences of her time studying Chilean Indian art in Santiago at the age of 16. Reflecting on this experience, Bibi speaks of how this reminds her of the importance of colour in life and how everything is not always black and white.
The beauty of Bibi’s art speaks for itself, but the journey she took to become a ceramicist, for me, makes her work even more powerful. While studying in Santiago, Bibi became a member of the Young Communist Party and a supporter of the left-wing President, Salvador Allende. On 11 September 1973, her life was overturned by a military coup, which resulted in the establishment of Augustus Pinochet as President of Chile. On the morning of the coup, Bibi was arrested at her father’s printing works. She was detained for three and a half years, during which time she was interrogated, tortured and raped.
In 1977 Bibi was released into the hands of the UN and came to England as a political refugee. Initially she had no-one to talk to about her experiences and could find no outlet for her distress, which led to her first suicide attempt in 1979. She was treated at Bethlem for a short period of time, but tried to commit suicide again in 1993. This time she was offered the chance to talk to a psychologist about her experiences and pottery was suggeted as a form of occupational therapy. However, the failed suicide attempt had led to Bibi losing the use of her left hand and left her frustrated with the fact she was still alive. It wasn’t until one day when she chanced upon the sight of another patient working the clay with one hand – while smoking a cigarette in the other – that she felt encouraged to try pottery for herself.
Pottery is still Bibi’s lifeline today and she now uses her experiences to help others.