The interaction of artists with scientists isn’t just about the generation of wonderful creative ideas and outputs, but is actually something that can make our world a better place. This is the statement made by of a new exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in London: Foreign Bodies, Common Ground. Looking at the work of six artists-in-residence with Art in Global Health Programme, this exhibition demonstrates some of the tangible societal benefits that can come when scientists open their doors to artists.
The exhibition places a particular emphasis on the role that artists can play in building bridges between scientists in laboratories and the communities that they serve, and covers the work of the following artists:
Participatory artist Elson Kambalu was paired with the Malawi-Liverpool Wellcome Trust Clinical Research Programme at the University of Malawi College of medicine. Whilst in residence, he explored both traditional and contemporary approaches to medical research. A complex landscape emerged between the researchers at the university and the communities they served. Most people in rural villages have very little conception of what research (‘Kakakufu’) is – and in an area where witchcraft beliefs dominate, many consider doctors as ‘bloodsuckers’. Kambalu observed that, “many medical words are almost untranslatable. How does one express ‘DNA’ or ‘genomics’ in Chichewa dialect to an illiterate woman?”
Working with women and children, he invited them to create artwork in response to their experience and understanding of health studies. Making traditional soil based paintings, we see images of families, doctors, communities. Overall, although the language of medicine was a foreign one, the communities recognised that they and the doctors wanted the same thing: healthy communities.
Miriam Syowia Kyambi and James Muriuki
Working with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, Miriam Syowia Kyambi and James Muriuki tackle the challenge of trust between local communities and public health research. What happens when different ideas, belief systems, ways of operating in the world come into contact? Muriuki observes, “If I’m living in Kilifi and my life has been spent there… then all of a sudden these people come asking for things that perhaps for my community are deemed to be very deeply human… like blood or spittle, urin samples or breast milk, then it’s very, very unusual, and I’d be highly suspicious.”
The response of Kyambi and Muriuki to this challenge is a pop-up photography studio, where people from the local town of Kilifi were invited to the ‘Pata Picha’ (get a picture) to be photographed alongside various props associated with scientific settings. Keen to see what the project was about, locals came to have their photo taken—for which they donned a lab coat or peered through a microscope. Stepping into another’s shoes is a powerful thing, and can provide grounds for negotiation of our differences.
Lena Bui is a Vietnamese multi-media artist who worked with zoonotic diseases whilst in residence with the Oxford University Clinical Research Unit. Her work engaged directly with human/animal interactions, considering the blurred line that develops in high-risk cohorts who work closely with animals on a daily basis. She explores these themes through time spent in a Vietnamese abattoir and the feather village of Trieu Khuk, which produces feathers for everything from dusters to pillows.
Faith and intimacy play an interesting role in Bui’s work. Presenting a series of photographs from abattoirs, she brings us to address the leap of faith we take when choosing to consume animals: that the meat is safe to eat. People who work with animals closely also trust that they will remain safe, and experience a particular intimacy with the animals (dead or alive) that most of us cannot fathom.
Zwelethu Mthethwa and the Mtubatuba Workshop
Data collection is an essential component of public health research, and the open sharing of this data is enabling better, faster research to happen. South African artist Zwelethu Mthethwa puts a human face to data collection, by giving people the opportunity to collect their own data. Giving basic lessons in photography to students of the Mtubatuba workshop, Mthethwa asked them to document their own perceptions of good health.
A lovely diversity of photos emerged, providing a human face to the data being collected by the Africa Centre for Health and Population Studies, where Mthethwa was in residence. Humour, as well as local struggles are apparent in these photographs. A young boy sits, grinning, in a bucket of water (one of the areas greatest health challenges). A young woman declares with a sign, “I practice yoga.” In public health data, each data point corresponds to an individual person; in looking at the mass data, it can be easy to forget the very real people with their own stories and struggles to whom those dots on a graph correspond.
Foreign Bodies, Common Ground
Artists in the laboratory might be considered foreign bodies that might either be accepted or rejected by the host. Whilst employing different methods and viewpoints, both artists and scientists share a profound interest in understanding ourselves and the world we inhabit. Likewise, public health professionals may seem like foreign bodies in certain places and situations, but share with the people they serve the desire for a healthy society. Again, the methods are different.
So whilst scientists may seem like an oddity in tribal African villages, with their own rituals and procedures, artists who are concerned with interpretation and meaning can perform an important role in bridging the gaps in our humanity. In general, I am wary of art/science collaborations, where the artist’s role is to merely communicate the science. I am also well aware of the sensitivity of the situations in which these scientists work, and the magnitude of the challenges they (and the people the work with) face. But I suspect that artists, as great interpreters of our world, can sometimes bridge some of the gaps between science and society to change lives for the better.
Foreign Bodies, Common Ground is on Display at the Wellcome Collection until 9 February 2014. It also features the excellent work of Katie Paterson and B-Floor Theatre.