Malaysian artist uses creativity to cope, raises awareness for BPD


‘To get better, you have to want to get better. You have to be accountable for yourself and how you treat the people around you. You have power and agency over yourself,’ says Adam, or better known as Univorso. Photo: Univorso

During the pandemic, mental health was a hot topic among Malaysians – more and more people were raw and honest in sharing their mental health struggles.

But since then, how much progress has been made in terms of public awareness, acceptance and systemic support for those living with mental health conditions?

For Adam Ummar, 27, it’s a topic that hits close to home, as someone diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD).

The Kuala Lumpur-based artist, who goes by the pseudonym Univorso, says that his new zine, Borderline Personality Disorder, is a collection of artworks from his Borderline series, some of which have previously been exhibited this year at the Universiti Malaya Medical Centre (UMMC) Gallery for World Mental Health Day and the Duality group exhibition at Zhan Art Space, as well as the 1000 Tiny Artworks exhibition at the Back Room KL in 2021.

“Nina Simone once said, ‘An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times’,” says the self-taught artist.

“This zine as a whole was created in an effort to raise awareness and promote better understanding of BPD through visual art and the written word. The artworks exist in tandem with the writings to give a visual context and supplement the cold, clinical facts with feelings and emotions expressed through abstract sensibilities.

“Through dispelling the stigma associated with mental disorders and fostering a better understanding of this life-threatening illness, I hope that it will foster empathy and understanding.” he adds.

His Borderline Personality Disorder zine will be launched at the Kuala Lumpur Art Book Fair 2023, which will be held at the upcoming Kuala Lumpur & Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall from Dec 8-10.

Turning pain into art

While there may be some overlap in terms of symptoms, BPD is not the same as Bipolar Disorder – the latter is a mood disorder, while BPD is a personality disorder.

“At its core, BPD is rooted in emotional dysregulation: the inability to regulate emotions. Intense and ever-changing emotions are a daily reality for people who live with BPD like me and so many others out there,” says Adam.

The BPD zine was created to raise awareness and promote a better understanding of the disorder through visual art and the written word. Photo: UnivorsoThe BPD zine was created to raise awareness and promote a better understanding of the disorder through visual art and the written word. Photo: Univorso

Some of the symptoms of BPD include fear of abandonment, impulsivity, an unstable sense of self, unstable relationships, difficulty controlling anger and chronic feelings of emptiness.

“All of these have negatively impacted my life in my education, employment and interpersonal relationships,” he admits.

At 16, Adam was diagnosed with MDD (Major Depressive Disorder) and dropped out of high school, despite doing well in his studies.

“I was profoundly depressed at the time and was admitted to the psychiatric ward at UMMC. Living with the pain and trauma on a daily basis has been difficult. But medication, along with psychotherapy, has helped me a lot in managing my symptoms and I’ve learned healthy coping mechanisms to manage my symptoms,” says Adam.

In his early 20s, his diagnosis was changed to Bipolar Type II before finally being updated to BPD in 2021.

“The BPD diagnosis helped me to recontextualise the mental health struggles I had experienced in the past decade.”

Unfortunately, that same year, one of Adam’s close friends who had also been diagnosed with BPD died by suicide.

An artwork titled 'Fear Of Abandonment' (mixed media on canvas, 2021), featured in the zine. Photo: UnivorsoAn artwork titled 'Fear Of Abandonment' (mixed media on canvas, 2021), featured in the zine. Photo: Univorso

“He had always supported me in my personal life and rooted for me to succeed as an artist. His loss was a huge blow to me,” says Adam.

“The zine is dedicated to him to honour his memory and was a way for me to turn pain, grief and hurt into something actionable.”

Adam reveals that one of the pieces featured in the zine that has a deep sentimental value for him is Fear of Abandonment, one of the earliest works in the Borderline series.

“It’s especially meaningful because this piece was painted over an existing painting called The Breakup, which I made after the end of a tumultuous relationship. It was after the relationship ended and going through a deep depressive episode that I was diagnosed with BPD.”

“It had never occurred to me that I experienced a severe fear of abandonment and that this had affected my friendships and romantic relationships in the past,” he says.

Exploring universal themes

According to Adam, his pseudonym Univorso is inspired by the ancient Latin word “universus”, meaning “combined into one, whole”, which encompasses his artistic, ethical and philosophical worldview.

Adam’s interests in design, social sciences and humanities inform his creative practice – most of his artworks revolve around the themes of emotions, psychology, philosophy, psychedelic culture and science, explored through the lens of traditional and digital abstraction.

“In my teenage years, I had a keen interest in fashion design, literature and the like. I started visiting galleries and museums, and attending art events.

A page from the art zine explaining BPD. Photo: UnivorsoA page from the art zine explaining BPD. Photo: Univorso

At 19, I knew deep down that I wanted to be an artist, even though I had no idea where to begin.”

In late 2019, Adam took a leap of faith and quit his full-time job in the fashion retail industry in order to pursue his dream of attending art school.

Having dropped out of high school, he needed a paper qualification to attend college, so he began studying for the International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE).

However, due to the pandemic lockdowns, his plans to go to art school were scrapped.

“It was devastating news, but throughout the pandemic, I continued making and learning about art. In 2020, I applied for the National Art Gallery’s Young Art Entrepreneurs programme and by a stroke of luck, I was accepted. I haven’t looked back since.”

For Adam, art has helped him let his emotions flow from his heart and mind and onto the canvas.

“Living with BPD has been described as having no emotional skin, and a person living with BPD feels emotions so intensely and these emotions can fluctuate massively in a single day, from uncontrollable anger to debilitating sadness to all-encompassing emptiness.”

“Art has provided me the tools and the space to talk about uncomfortable truths just like the conversation we are having right now; it has given me an outlet to sit with, explore and express my feelings,” concludes Adam.

Those who struggle with thoughts of suicide can reach out to the Mental Health Psychosocial Support Service (03-2935 9935/ 014-322 3392); Talian Kasih (15999 / 019-261 5999 on WhatsApp); Jakim’s family, social and community care centre (011-1959 8214 on WhatsApp); or Befrienders Kuala Lumpur (03-7627 2929/email sam@befrienders.org.my / befrienders.org.my/centre-in-malaysia).

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