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Healer art

Healer art

Although still considered to be a mere palliative by medical professionals, various fields of art like music, dance or painting are emerging as mainstream therapeutic method to treat physical, mental or emotional problems in developed world. Few initiatives in Ethiopia as well are revealing the potential of art therapy in medical field, write Hiwot Abebe.

Japanese abstract painter Yayoi Kusama, famous for her installation of infinity mirror rooms and her yellow and black polka dot pumpkin paintings, has lived with mental illness for many decades. Now in her 80s, she still has hallucination about pumpkins that spoke to her in her youth, and pumpkins have been a significant subject of her paintings and exhibitions. In the book 33 Artists in 3 Acts, Sarah Thornton says the following of Kusama: “She can’t bear it when anything gets in the way of making art because it alone stops her from obsessing on suicide. I ask how often she thinks about dying. ‘Almost every night,’ she says. ‘Particularly these days because I am an insomniac.’”

Kusama’s artistic practice plays a therapeutic role in her life. Art therapy is a merging of psychotherapy and fields of art like music, dance or painting for therapeutic self-expression. Painting, dancing, playing music, sculpting, acting, craft making, knitting and many other creative practices have been employed by artists, therapists and many others as stress reliefs, anxiety reducers and relaxation methods.

Self-care and mental health awareness are gaining mainstream attention, mixing eastern art therapy (such as adult coloring books inspired by mandalas) and western psychology. Art therapy has been used as an alternative to talk therapy since it encourages explaining mental landscape through art-making. 

Art therapy is an acceptable therapeutic method that can be applied to individuals with physical, mental or emotional problems and disorders in western countries but it has yet to gain sufficient attention in Ethiopia. There is a lot of stigma and misconception concerning psychotherapy and many in need of the treatment refuse to consider its benefits.

This narrow social outlook combined with the low number of practicing psychotherapists has minimized the potential of many treatments like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy or art therapy. According to Ephrem Bekele, psychologist and media personality, educational institutions specializing in psychology and psychotherapy do not offer courses in art therapy. Although he has a master’s degree in Psychotherapy, Ephrem has had to research the therapy method himself to understand its value.

By collaborating with international circus artist Solomon Solgit, Ephrem began exploring the concept of ‘social circus’ and together they co-founded SunEko Art for Social Development. This non-profit organization aimed to bring social change through art and their first project has been a social circus based in Adama.

20 children (6-14 years of age) from low-income families regularly come to the Circus Adama compound to learn circus skills and socialize after school and on weekends. Their training depends on their own predilection towards a certain medium like juggling, dancing, playing musical instruments or acting – they are encouraged to find and follow their passion. “All we give them is space, skill, time and hope”, says Ephrem.

“Every circus act has meaning. Tight rope walking teaches about balancing life. There’s improvisation, creativity, coordination … there’s a role for kids with any interest. There’s music, juggling, the pyramid for children of all sizes, architecture for those interested in the circus tent and other structures, costume design for those interested in fashion, dance. It’s inclusive of all,” he says.

The children, initially shy and withdrawn have become more confident and communicative. Art therapy is especially useful for children since it can be visual or movement based instead of forcing kids to talk about their experiences and emotional states. Since the project began 9 months ago, these young circus artists have participated in the African Circus Festival, hosted a photo exhibition and engaged in many community development activities in Adama.

According to Ephrem, the circus members are role models to other children in the area, inspiring those unsuccessful in formal education to follow alternative career routes. Former members of Circus Adama have become musicians and actors following their stay in the troupe. “Learning one small skill encourages children to try other things. They become more confident,” Ephrem explains.

Melkamu Meaza (MD) is a general surgeon based in Addis and a staunch advocate for music therapy to patients. According to an article in the Ethiopian Herald from 2015, the intersection of the doctor’s career and passion for music had led to his producing two albums – Deep Abyssinia and Tribal Magic.

Melkamu has been researching music therapy and devising how to begin introducing the therapy in local hospitals and health care centers. Music and art therapy have been employed in Amanuel Mental Health Center and Geferssa Mental Rehabilitation Center in collaboration with local artists. Art therapy has been applied for treating stress, anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and physical disability. It has been used to treat dementia, cancer, autism, schizophrenia and other mental and emotional disorders.

Many health care professionals recognize art therapy’s benefit in assisting treatment of a patient but find it to be a palliative without addressing the root cause of the illness.

Of course art therapy can be applied in conjunction with medical treatment but Bekri Ahmedin, a multimedia artist, has a holistic view of art therapy. With a combination of dance, music and drawing, he hopes to align recipient of the treatment to the natural flow of the universe. He conducts workshops in schools and art centers engaging participants in creative dancing/movement, storytelling, play-acting and other therapeutic exercises. The dancing frees people of their inhibitions and the storytelling incites their imagination and creativity, he says.

A background as a physiotherapist and extensive practices in poetry and conceptual art combined with his study of eastern philosophy and western psychology has led to Bekri’s unique blend of art therapy. His approach is to break the rhythm of daily drudgery and gain a higher level of understanding of the body and the mind. An example of this disruption is a sudden stretch of silence during a workshop that forces the audience to wait. Impatient or deeply contemplative, we notice a disruption in the flow of thoughts of participants and the event they’re attending. Bekri describes himself as an ‘experience designer’, an artist forcing the breakdown of internal defenses and ingrained survival mechanisms.

The holistic approach to illness advocates that illness is not necessarily negative and must be taken in stride as part of the natural cycle of life and death. Bekri strongly believes there are no indigenous healers and spiritual artists and if there were they have been destroyed by the modern education system.

Whether recalling forgotten healing arts of Native Americans or attempting to establish music therapy in psychiatry wards, Ethiopian artists and art therapists are working to establish the field as a legitimate treatment method. Bekri, Ephrem and Mekamu are attempting to raise more awareness. While clients might not become the next Kusama, the ones lucky enough to make art with them have found alternative means of self-care and stability.