Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Art for TB - Exploring the Human Face of a Disease

Stefan writes about the just concluded "Art for TB workshop" that the Reflection Art Gallery and Global Health Associates India have organised as this year's 'Creative Conscience' experience.

Our introduction to the human face of TB started with two visits to Asia's largest TB hospital here in the heart of New Delhi. The good doctors gave us an overview of the disease, a tour of the hospital, and then we walked into the wards to meet the patients.

At the OPD I remember being struck by the fact that so many people were covering their faces with handkerchiefs and pieces of cloth, I presumed out of fear of contracting the disease. When someone asked the doctors how they keep themselves safe from this primarily airborne disease I got the fuller picture: "We make sure all the patients where masks".

As we talked with patients from all walks of life, students, homeless, mothers, taxi-drivers, government employees, even a convict in a ward with bars and a policeman on duty, the breadth of the disease's reach struck us, along with the humanness of each tragedy: an old man lying in a bed abandoned by his family, a woman turned out of her home and planning her divorce on getting better, a boy asking us to photograph the man in the next bed, rather than him, as he fears being recognized locally.

And yet at the same time we could not avoid the light shining through, the sanctity of each life, the sparks of dignity: the young girl, hair immaculately combed, who walked into the hospital garden to pluck a rose for each visitor, hand shaking as she handed each one out; the optimistic young man seated on his bed with a pile of books, studying for exams to become a doctor; the old muslim man, who as he talked kept pulling at his face mask until by increment his smile was revealed in all its fullness and generosity, and a passing nurse had to chide him to put it back on again.

With these memories we went to work in a 2-storied house that had been fully set aside for the 5-day workshop. Armed with canvasses, easels, a table full of paints, and many cups of tea we spent the next 5 days ideating, painting, discussing. How to even begin thinking about solutions? Is it just about access to medical services? What are the roots of this problem? What to do with the stigma? How can a painting bring about change? How do we not just make poster-art, but maintain the integrity of art while causing deeper reflection? Why target corporate leaders rather than paint for the man on the street?

In the end many of us didn't complete our paintings during those five days, but as the exhibition is slated for November we still have time. What did happen was a remarkable engagement with a problem that although being so enormous, is so easy to ignore. Having seen the human face of the disease, and having wrestled with the size and complexity of the problem, we took ownership of it. And having done so in community, as artists jointly trying to make sense of it, something special happened: a renewed sensitivity to others' suffering, a bonding with each other, and a sense of purpose in seeing art meaningfully engage our context.

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