I Kind Of Had A Nervous Breakdown : Mandy El-Sayegh
Tatler Singapore|January 2022
Artist Mandy El-Sayegh has received international acclaim for her multidimensional paintings, but a breakdown in 2020 pushed her in an entirely new direction
Oliver Giles

It was in the spring of 2020 that Mandy El-Sayegh felt herself losing touch with reality. “I kind of had a nervous breakdown,” she says. “It was quite public.”

At the time, El-Sayegh was coming out of a turbulent six-year relationship and the Covid-19 virus was tearing across the UK. A national lockdown forced her to isolate in her studio, away from family and friends, and to retreat into her work. At first, she was thrilled to have so much time to focus on the sculptures, installations, videos and the fleshy, multilayered paintings that have made her one of the world’s most in-demand young artists. But as galleries and museums were closed, there was nowhere for her art to go. It accumulated in piles around her, filling every inch of her space. It was suffocating.

El-Sayegh veered wildly between a deep depression and manic anxiety. In crisis, she tried to find comfort in a new friend, who was dealing with her own trauma. “I ended up overly identifying with this stranger who was outside the studio and who lived in a caravan,” she says. El-Sayegh was initially unnerved by this mysterious woman, who parked her caravan on the street one night and stayed hidden inside for weeks. “She was a sex worker and also an artist. After months of being very paranoid about this presence because I didn’t know what she looked like, I saw her one night and she was a 26-year-old, very frail and beautiful person. We ended up making art together and going through a whole process of healing, until it got to a point where it wasn’t OK.” First, the stranger moved into El-Sayegh’s studio and refused to leave. Then she stole El-Sayegh’s laptop. Finally, she began to physically threaten her.

“She’d worked in a circus, so she was really good with knives,” says El-Sayegh. “She would always challenge me. She’d say, ‘Do you want me to harm you or hug you: what do you want? You need to decide exactly what you want—you can’t be complacent anymore in this life.’ I was like, ‘I just want you out.’ It got dangerous.”

Eventually, both El-Sayegh and the intruder were evicted by the landlord, which gave El-Sayegh the chance to start afresh. “Something needed to snap. I had to move studios. It was like a divorce,” she says. It took months for El-Sayegh to rebuild her mental health but now, more than a year later, her experiences are feeding into several upcoming shows: she currently has a painting in the prestigious group exhibition British Art Show 9, which is touring the UK till the end of the year; she has a solo show opening in March in Lehmann Maupin’s gallery in Palm Beach, Florida; and another coming up at the sprawling non-profit UTA Artist Space in Los Angeles, which will open in April.

It is the last exhibition that is most directly inspired by El-Sayegh’s recent experiences. After moving studios, El-Sayegh began experimenting with performance, a medium she had never worked with before, which resulted in her presenting a nearly 20-minute-long, six-person dance at the Frieze London fair in October 2020. She is currently planning a follow-up performance for UTA.

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