Artists take on illness across the world – Global Health project



Six artist residencies in six different countries culminate in a London exhibition that explores new ways of seeing and understanding in the realm of  ‘global health research’.

“Foreign Bodies, Common Ground” (14 November 2013 to 9 February 2014) is the culmination of the Wellcome Collection’s Art in Global Health project, which sponsored six artist residencies in six health research centres around the world between 2012 and 2013. The project connected artists with global health issues, enabling creative ways of understanding the meaning of global health research today.

Getting pig saliva samples, 2012. Image courtesy Lena Bui.

Taking pig saliva samples, 2012. Image courtesy Lena Bui.

In the name of health research

The Trust and the Collection

London’s Wellcome Collection, as explained on the organisation’s website, “explores the connections between medicine, life and art in the past, present and future.” The collection is part of the Wellcome Trust, the world’s largest independent charitable foundation funding research into human and animal health, established under the behest of Sir Henry Solomon Wellcome in 1936.

Sir Henry was a pharmacist, entrepreneur, philanthropist and collector. At the helm of the Trust, he established world-class medical research laboratories and created an impressive collection relating to medicine and health through the ages, including a library of books, journals, archives, film and visual images.

Children's graffiti, 2012. Image courtesy Elson Kambalu and the children of Mawila Primary School, Chikhwawa.

Children’s graffiti, 2012. Image courtesy Elson Kambalu and the children of Mawila Primary School, Chikhwawa.

A more personal dimension to health research

The Art in Global Health project, now in its first edition, set up six artist residencies in six Wellcome Trust-funded health research centres around the world. The project is explained on the trust’s website as, “a way of teasing out some of the more personal, philosophical, cultural and political dimensions of health research.”

Curator Danielle Olsen told Art Radar that,

Art in Global Health was not instrumental in its aims – it was not setting out to raise awareness of health issues, to communicate messages or to engage specific audiences. The goal of the project was to create and nurture opportunities for artistic exploration of some of the varied social and cultural contexts within which scientific research takes place, to support the production of new artworks and to open up spaces for new kinds of conversation.

B-Floor Theatre, Everything wants to survive, 2013. Image courtesy the artists.

B-Floor Theatre, ‘Everything wants to survive’, 2013. Image courtesy the artists.

What is ‘global health’?

“Global health means so many different things to different people,” says Olsen. On the project’s website, ‘global health’ is defined as a phrase that we hear more and more frequently, as it attracts more investment and increased attention. But the project also raises a significant question: “can health really be ‘global’?” Many diseases are tied to their geographical realities- malaria or dengue fever, for example.

What links health issues globally are the common challenges faced by researchers, doctors, families, politicians and individuals around the world. The responses and methodologies through which issues are finally dealt with, though, vary enormously in different locations. The project’s statement expresses this succinctly in one sentence: “The social relevance of scientific research is shaped by its cultural context.”

Miriam Syowia Kyambi and James Muriuki, Pata Picha Studio. Image courtesy Wellcome Images.

Miriam Syowia Kyambi and James Muriuki, Pata Picha Studio, 2012-2013. Image courtesy Wellcome Images.

The programme

Six residencies, six locations

The six residencies, lasting for six months during 2012 and 2013, explore the social and cultural aspects of health research, offering personal perspectives by artists. The residencies took place in Kenya, Malawi, South Africa, Thailand, Vietnam and the United Kingdom. The curator explains how the locations and artists were chosen after a thorough process of research and investigation into the art and research localities, by “looking at the work of the research centres, at the work of artists in each of the countries and at the history of relevant ideas.” Furthermore, the locations of the residencies were determined by the Wellcome Trust’s already existing relationships.

The artists were given a brief, as presented in the project’s statement:

… to find out about the research being undertaken, to interact with scientists and team members from other disciplines – anthropologists, ethicists, economists, educators and so on – and to produce work in response to the processes of research and discovery they have observed.

The work of the artists during their residencies did not only tap into health research relevant to local communities, but also into issues of greater “shared global connectedness”, as Olsen calls it.  She goes on to say that “all of the works in the exhibition relate to relationships upon which the social relevance of scientific research depends – and all of the works come from the meeting of different ways of perceiving things.”

Soil Painting, Chikhwawa, 2012. Image courtesy Elson Kambalu.

Soil painting, Chikhwawa, 2012. Image courtesy Elson Kambalu.

The final exhibition

The residencies project culminated in the exhibition at the Wellcome Collection titled “Foreign Bodies, Common Grounds”, launched on 14 November 2013 and running until 9 February 2013. The exhibition features the artists’ works produced during their residencies, including painting, photography, sculpture, film and performance. The project resulted in an exhibition that represents, according to the press release,

… a series of moving, challenging and humorous works, richly varied in form and tone, recording journeys taken within the complex realm that lies between scientific processes and local communities, often on the frontlines of communicable diseases. … [The exhibition] outlines the intricate web of relationships upon which the future health of communities depends. Collaborative exchanges on data collection and use, the spread of disease and ideas, the motivations of participants and researchers and the role of trust, give rise to art animated by the search for connections between mindsets and datasets.

Lena Bui, 'Eat by Faith', 2012, (detail), photographs. Image courtesy the artist. © Lena Bui

Lena Bui, ‘Eat by Faith’, 2012, (detail), photographs. Image courtesy the artist. © Lena Bui

Personal perspectives on health research

The artists

The artists who participated in Art in Global Health and finally presented their work in the “Foreign Bodies, Common Grounds” exhibition in London are:

  • B-Floor Theatre (Bangkok, Thailand)
  • Lena Bui (Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam)
  • Elson Kambalu (Blantyre, Malawi)
  • Miriam Syowia Kyambi and James Muriuki (Kilifi and Nairobi, Kenya)
  • Zwelethu Mthethwa (Mtubatuba, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa)
  • Katie Paterson (Hinxton, Cambridgeshire)
B-Floor Theatre, 'Survival Games', 2013, video. Image courtesy the artists.

B-Floor Theatre, ‘Survival Games’, 2013, video. Image courtesy the artists.

Survival of the fittest: humans vs disease

B-Floor Theatre company creates highly visual theatre experiences combining physical movement and multimedia elements. Their work is meant to stimulate social and political awareness in the face of contemporary issues concerning Thai realities.

During the residency at the Wellcome Trust-Mahidol University-Oxford Tropical Medicine Research Programme, the artists explored immunoligists’ research into malaria at the Thai-Myanmar border and melioidosis, a bacterial infection picked up through the soil by rice farmers in Udon Ratchanthani, here at its highest world rate.

B-Floor observed the centre’s staff at work and talked to local clinics, research centres and local communities in the countryside. The theme of ‘survival’ became their point of departure: “diseases harm us to survive, and for the same reason we want to kill them,” say the artists.

B-Floor Theatre and Wandering Moon, shadow installation, 2013. Image courtesy the artists.

B-Floor Theatre and Wandering Moon, shadow installation, 2013. Image courtesy the artists.

The final outcome was B-Floor Theatre’s Survival Games at the Pridi Banomyong Institute in Bangkok in collaboration with Wandering Moon Theatre, a theatrical production depicting the participants in the research process and the battle between humans and ever-mutating diseases, all through the artists’ comic vision.

The live performance included multimedia elements, such as projections of videos taken on their research trips, scientific images of the diseases’ structures and a vertical shadow puppet installation stretching from gallery floor to ceiling.

Lena Bui, abattoir, 2012. Image courtesy the artist.

Lena Bui, abattoir, 2012. Image courtesy the artist.

Humans and animals

Lena Bui is a multimedia artist from Danang, Vietnam currently living and working in Ho Chi Minh City. “I like to collect stories, true or mythical, and weave them into my own narratives. These combined stories are portrayed through mixed media that serve to question and explore changes in lifestyle and perception in a community over time,” she says.

During her residency at the Oxford University Clinical Research Unit in Ho Chi Minh City, Bui explored the centre’s zoonosis research and the relationship between animals and humans. In countryside areas, Bui observed how local people did nothing to protect themselves from the hazards due to their need to work and survive despite being aware of animal transmitted diseases.

Lena Bui, 'Where birds dance their last', 2012, video. Image courtesy the artist. © Lena Bui

Lena Bui, ‘Where birds dance their last’, 2012, video. Image courtesy the artist. © Lena Bui

Bui found her inspiration in “the human-animal relationship in places that are considered high-risk cohorts, the traditional practice of killing and consuming, and the socioeconomic context that shapes people’s attitudes and choices.”

In an abattoir in Dong Thap, the artist noticed the uncanny resemblance between pig and human skins, while at “the feather village” near Hanoi, where villagers collect fresh feathers from wet markets to produce brooms and shuttlecocks, people seemed like birds about to take flight. The artist observed that

These instances depict strangely harmonic (sic) moments of collision and merging between human and animal parts, evoking the paradoxical co-dependence and violence that mark the human-animal relationship and, in a broader sense, the all-consuming nature of life.

Bui’s residency resulted in the exhibition “Voracious Embrace: The human/animal interface”, in collaboration with San Art at the Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Museum from 1 to 14 November 2012. The artist presented a variety of works, including photography, drawings, sculptures and video.

Elson Kambalu, 'Kafukufuku Man' and 'Kafukufuku Women', 2012-2013. Image courtesy Wellcome Images.

Elson Kambalu, ‘Kafukufuku Man’ and ‘Kafukufuku Women’, 2012-2013. Image courtesy Wellcome Images.

Tradition versus modernity

Elson Kambalu is based in Malawi and owns various galleries and contemporary art initiatives in the capital Lilongwe. These galleries include La Galleria Africa, which showcases the top Malawian artists, and Art-House Africa, a platform facilitating interaction between artists and clients for sustainable livelihoods.

During his residency at the Malawi-Liverpool-Wellcome Trust Clinical Research Programme, Kambalu explored the gaps between traditional and modern medicine which influence health research, at a time when the economic and social policies of the Malawian president were having a negative impact on the country.

Kambalu encountered many challenges faced by researchers, such as traditional ways of thinking and curing, issues of consent, illiteracy, superstition, cultural and language barriers. These factors made medical research and treatment very difficult to explain to the local communities and to carry out.

Children's graffiti, 2012. Image courtesy Elson Kambalu and the children of Mawila Primary School, Chikhwawa.

Children’s graffiti, 2012. Image courtesy Elson Kambalu and the children of Mawila Primary School, Chikhwawa.

In Chikhwawa village, the artist came across murals created by women in traditional patterns and depicting everyday stories on topics ranging from religion to love. The artist decided to produce murals in collaboration with the local communities, which talked about health research and issues in ways that were accessible and understandable to the local population.

After the residency Kambalu produced a variety of events, including an exhibition of his sculptural installation work, earth murals and graffiti created by women and children in Chikhwawa and an arts festival in Chikhwawa district, Kafukufuku Arts Festival. Elements in Kambalu’s sculptures point to the tangled interconnectedness of individuals, beliefs and community and their sense of kafukufuku – ‘research’ in Malawi’s Chichewa language.

Miriam Syowia Kyambi and James Muriuki, Pata Picha Studio Photographs, 2012. Image courtesy the artists.

Miriam Syowia Kyambi and James Muriuki, Pata Picha Studio Photographs, 2012. Image courtesy the artists.

The researcher and the researched

Miriam Syowia Kyambi is an installation artist living and working in Nairobi who explores personal relationships to cultural ideas. Her work centres around historical and social notions of identity, ideas of loss, public and personal space, and the development of traditional knowledge through contemporary methodologies. James Muriuki experiments with photo-based and new digital media and is interested in the transitions of time and space reflected by contemporary society, where the known disintegrates and the unknown start to take shape.

Kyambi and Muriuki collaborated in the residency at KEMRI-Wellcome Trust Research Programme (Kifili and Nairobi) to explore the interrelationships between researchers and the researched. The artists explored “the ethical dilemmas and negotiations that arise in encounters between different belief systems and cultural values in Kenya.” They explored themes such as education, belief, context, money, power and exploration.

Miriam Syowia Kyambi and James Muriuki, 'Conjure Paths', 2012. Image courtesy the artists.

Miriam Syowia Kyambi and James Muriuki, ‘Conjure Paths’, 2012. Image courtesy the artists.

In Kilifi, the artists set up Pata Picha Photo Studio, a mobile set outfitted with props connected to these themes, which members of the public could pose with for a photograph. Conversations in the studio revealed many of the community’s expectations, tensions, hopes and fears about scientific research.

The artists’ efforts culminated in their exhibition “Layers: Perceptions and interaction between scientists and communities” at the National Nairobi Museum from 10 to 31 December 2012. In the London exhibition, the artists have presented the studio, portraits and artworks produced during the residency.

Sanele Mbokazi, 'Splash', 2012, from the Mtubatuba Workshop by Zwelethu Mthethwa. Image courtesy the artist.

Sanele Mbokazi, ‘Splash’, 2012, from the Mtubatuba Workshop by Zwelethu Mthethwa. Image courtesy the artist.

Data with a human face

Zwelethu Mthethwa is a photographer from South Africa. His interest lies in asking diverse questions that emanate from our understanding or lack of understanding of a certain culture. His work focuses on the aesthetic element, to portray something that the artist finds beautiful.

During his residency at Africa Centre for Health and Population Studies in South Africa, Mthethwa explored the role that the communities play in contributing to health research. His works “put a human face to data collection,” as the exhibition’s press release reads. Working in the Mtubatuba community in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, the artist looked into the centre’s research on the HIV epidemic and its related systematic demographic surveys.

Nothando Sabela, 'Vinyasa Flow 2', 2012, from Mtubatuba Workshop by Zwelethu Mthethwa. Image courtesy the artist.

Nothando Sabela, ‘Vinyasa Flow 2′, 2012, from Mtubatuba Workshop by Zwelethu Mthethwa. Image courtesy the artist.

Mthethwa held the Mtubatuba Workshop with local photographers, who were given cameras to explore and document what they called ‘impilo engcono’ or good health. The artist gave a brief to the workshop participants: “Go to your local communities, to your families, to your friends and try to capture what you understand is good health.”

The photographs produced by the locals were shown in ‘Good Health: Impilo Engcono’ at Brundyn + Gonsalves gallery in Cape Town from 27 March to 1 May 2013 alongside the artist’s work. The works, personal records of everyday life, pointed to themes such as contaminated water, religion and contraception.

Katie Paterson, 'Fossil Necklace', 2013, details. Photo: MJC. Image courtesy the artist.

Katie Paterson, ‘Fossil Necklace’, 2013, details. Photo: MJC. Image courtesy the artist.

Exploring the ‘global’ DNA

Katie Paterson is a British conceptual artist. She often works with scientists and researchers to explore time and the evolution of nature and the cosmos. Imagination is a key aspect of her practice. Her projects make use of sophisticated technologies and specialist expertise to stage intimate, poetic and philosophical engagements between people and their natural environment.

During her residency at Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridge, Paterson explored genomics research. The artist was especially struck by the connections she found between the millions of DNA clusters visible on the sequencing machinery and the depth of the cosmos. “In both,” explains Paterson, “we are looking to great expanses outside and inside ourselves, at the same time.”

While producing her work, the artist strayed into palaeontology, anthropology, biology, botany, natural history, climatology, zoology, prehistory, archaeology, geology, geography and even astro-biology, which she said “all intertwine together with genetic evolution as worked on at the Sanger Institute.”

Katie Paterson, 'Fossil Necklace', 2013. Photo: MJC. Image courtesy the artist.

Katie Paterson, ‘Fossil Necklace’, 2013. Photo: MJC. Image courtesy the artist.

Her residency culminated in her solo exhibition at Kettle Yard in Cambridge, which presented a variety of works including her new Fossil Necklace. Defined in the press release as a “biological history of the planet”, the necklace is made of 170 beads, each carved from a fossil representing a major event in the evolution of life.

The artwork is “a global story of our deep rooted connections with each other and other species, charting an extraordinary history of life, health and survival through the physical impressions of lives long passed.” In her statement the artist says “’Fossil Necklace’ attempts to bring together the great diversity of life, drawing connections between all species”.

Khumalo Sinethemba, 'Innocence', 2012, from Mtubatuba Workshop by Zwelethu Mthethwa. Image courtesy the artist.

Khumalo Sinethemba, ‘Innocence’, 2012, from Mtubatuba Workshop by Zwelethu Mthethwa. Image courtesy the artist.

A closer connection to health research

The six residencies all contributed in some way to a wider understanding of what health research is and how communities relate to it in different countries. As Danielle Olsen expressed in the exhibition’s press release,

‘Foreign Bodies, Common Ground’ is the result of six very different journeys united by a generous and collaborative exchange of ideas. Placing artists within scientific research institutions is one small way of bridging discourses and practices, creating opportunities for self-reflection. The exhibition asks questions about what we understand by global health and the wonderfully rich body of artworks on display offers moving and often unexpected insights into scientific processes and the community relationships upon which those processes depend.

Lena Bui commented,

As a scientist, it’s quite complicated to implement a study since you have a lot of institutional procedures, codes of ethics and regulations. As an artist, it was much easier for me to just go and ask questions, and people are also more willing to talk.

B-Floor Theatre members were delighted that

[they] were much encouraged by the researchers to bring the performance to new places, especially where the information on the diseases will be not only interesting but also of practical benefit.

In his local Malawian context, Elson Kambalu managed to involve the communities in explaining connections between tradition, superstition and health research in ways accessible to the local communities.

Above all, my eyes have been opened to the new world of health research, which has shown me the cost of sacrifice, courage, love, deprivation and hope, in something I have always taken for granted – medicine.

Zwelethu Mthethwa in South Africa “subverted the dehumanisation inherent in statistics (…) instead emphasising the human faces attached to the data.” He managed to involve locals with his photography workshops, recording personal ways of seeing issues of health.  The artist talks about his contribution to the community, in his effort to raise awareness while also giving hope to the people:

My photographs don’t focus on people dying. I love to look at beautiful people. I love showing the positive because I want you, as a viewer, to have hope when you look at them.

  C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia

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Related topics: Vietnamese artists, African artists, British artists, foundations, nonprofit, artist residencies, art and science, art and the community, events in London

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