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A sparkling therapy

A sparkling therapy

Art therapy is a form of expressive therapy that uses the creative process of making art to improve a person’s physical, mental, and emotional well-being. It is sometimes called creative arts therapy or expressive arts therapy, encourages people to express and understand emotions through artistic expression and through the creative process. Here in Addis, an art therapy workshop is being organized by a non-profit organization called Sparkle. The organization focuses on art project on mental wellbeing, writes Senait Feseha.

There is turmoil on the canvas: ruled by dark blue, smeared with a hint of red and splattered with shades of green. “ Household Items”, is a piece from Sparkle, an art exhibition at the Kokebe Tsibah Primary and Secondary School, and reflects 13 years old Weyneshet Muchi’s fascination with bold colours.  

Weyneshet Muchi is a withdrawn teenager who often has difficulty comprehending ordinary things; finding day to day communications challenging. But apart from occasionally throwing tantrums and making sudden emotional outbursts, she is known for being witty and playful in the presence of her friends.

Similar to Weyneshet’s imaginative piece, this first of its kind art exhibition will be celebrating the creative works of 15 children affected with autism spectrum, anxiety disorder and depression; challenging society’s assumptions about individuals with mental illness.  

The exhibition will be featuring an exceptional range of work that is as diverse as its contributers; it will create hands-on experiences for visitors by allowing them to make their own creations in situ. The artworks, some miniature and intimate, others huge and collaborative will be focusing on an important objective: voicing emotions through creative expressions.

“Communication does not come stress-free for everone, especially for those with mental illness. However, art can be therapeutic and help affected individuals express themselves smoothly,” Yonatan Workneh, one of the organizers at Sparkle, said.

With the aim of creating awareness about mental illness and untangling the stigma associated with it, Sparkle, a non-profit art project on mental wellbeing, generated a platform where artists, therapists, and teachers used their skills to organize an Art Therapy workshop, a form of psychotherapy which uses art media as its primary mode of expression and communication in order to address emotional issues, within a therapeutic setting.

Majority of the participants, aged 10-14, have been diagnosed with autism spectrum and/or other intellectual disabilities, a health condition that is characterized by noticeable difficulties in behavior, social interaction, communication and sensory sensitivities.

Autistic art is not something new. It is art created by autistic artists or art which captures or conveys a variety of autistic experiences or demeanor. Art by autistic artists has long been shown in separate venues from artists without disabilities and the art of those with autism has often been considered part of Outsider Art. The works of some autistic artists have featured in art publications, documentaries and been exhibited in mainstream galleries.

Stephen Wiltshire is one of the most famous autistic artists. His works are largely architectural or of cityscapes, monuments and buildings. Other autistic artists producing representational art include Richard Wawro, Jessica Hillary Park and Ping Lian Yeak.

The workshops were focused on helping participants develop a sense of self-identity; forming relationships with their bodies, family and surroundings.

The main reason for choosing younger students was the conviction they had and their willingness to create artworks, said Yonatan, “Students between the age of ten and fourteen showed strong inclination towards arts such as painting, music, and crafts making.”

Participants were introduced to new forms of art such as acrylic painting, poetry, music and dance. The workshop was made possible through consultations with Yidnekachew Mulugeta, a visual artist who previously worked on an art therapy program at the St. Amanuel Mental Health Hospital, and incorporating music educator and violinist Tigist Getachew and musician Abomma Aberra in the therapy sessions.

“Collaborating on a single artwork engaged the students in dialogues and created an understanding about collective identity and ownership.” said Yonatan. “Moreover by involving the students in this workshop, they have become more expressive, confident and empowered.”

Yonatan feels that the process of making art and having it exhibited was important to help the students form a sense of identity rather than accept what was given to them through their health condition: a mental health patient. “Participants who found it difficult to communicate orally and failed to interact with us in the beginning have shown improvements in their confidence to express themselves.”  

Sparkle was also designed with the intent of engaging the school community (which is also home to a kindergarten and a special needs education department), with the greater community of Addis Ababa using art therapy and its attributes. It will be displaying artworks throughout the school’s compound, as well as an outdoor exhibition in a pavilion structure built for that purpose.

 “Sparkle is a small scale project with big goals, the goals of which will stem from the social, economic and environmental ties made and awareness created by using the arts.” Yonatan said.

According to Mental Health Gap Action Program working group 2010 (FMoH), Mental illness is the leading non-communicable disorder in terms of burden in Ethiopia. It comprises 11 percent of the total burden of disease, with depression and schizophrenia included in the top ten most burdensome conditions, out-ranking HIV/AIDS.

With this in mind, the project was generated by Active Citizen Program and the British Council, introducing participants to social action projects and marking the beginning of a yearlong Artivism Project. Artivism is an Active Citizen’s venture working with youth leaders from Ethiopia, Sudan and South Sudan on community developments through civic engagement as well as arts for development and change.

The organizers are confident that this creative process will allow individuals with mental illnesses to channel challenging behaviors into an expressive outlet, promoting communication, confidence and social skill. As Sigmund Freud, a famous psychoanalyst once put it: unexpressed emotions will never die, they are buried alive and will come forth later in uglier ways.

After a thorough workshop,  the program wraps with an art exhibition at the Kokebe Tsibah Primary and Secondary School, beginning on July 8, 2018. It is free and open to the public; hosting more than 50  artworks covering varoius facets of daily life.