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“African art is functional it serves a purpose. It should be healing, a source of joy. Spreading positive vibrations.” Mos Def
Art is cross cutting and though we may not associate art and health, art therapy, in the West since the ‘60’s, has been emerging in Africa for the past decade. Art therapy is defined as an expressive therapy using the creative process of producing art towards physical, mental, and emotional well-being. There are diverse approaches, materials, media and therapists that play a pivotal role towards the diagnosis and healing of children, youth, adults and elders alike.
As the practice increases in Africa, I wonder about two things. The first is the effectiveness of art therapy in Africa, as introduced by the West. South Africa had this concern and researched the appropriateness of Western approaches, in consideration of the African narrative and social constructs in the postcolonial era. Thankfully, recommendations of the Health Professionals Council of South Africa include the need for developing a South African approach to art therapy in the interest and respect for the use of traditional African methods and artifacts. In Tanzania partnerships with international organizations create community based programs that depend on students and volunteers. Next door, Kenyans are working with the Art Institute of Chicago and George Washington University to develop relevant programs in the country. I am not an expert in this field but I am an advocate for alternative forms of treatment that are natural and noninvasive, especially for the treatment of mental health, an area Black folks don’t deal with well.
The second thing I wonder about is the potential for use of art therapy in everyday life. Again, I am not a professional, but I do have some anecdotal experience. In October 2005 I launched the DYMDC Children’s Art Project with my four youngest children and Artist Merid Tafesse. We provided support for homeless, orphaned and vulnerable children in the Arat kilo/Piasa area, known as “The Village” due to the African proverb, “it takes a village to raise a child”. The Village was part of my Corporate Social Responsibility policy; providing meals, school fees, bath facilities etc. for up to 75 children per day on average. The one thousand square Kara meter compound, in the ‘cut’, was surprisingly filled with flowers, green grass, wall murals and lots of love.
Artist Mulugeta Kassa provided art instruction; Choreographer, Prof. Ras Mikey Courtney gave dance classes and performances; Reggae artist, Ras Seyoume assisted with music and Art Director, Merid Tafesse, provided mentorship and oversaw art activities. The Village hosted well-known personalities including Poet Gesh Sebhat GebreIgziabiher and renowned Singer, Tsedenia GebreMarkos, along with exhibitions for the children and artists including Tamrat Gezaghen. Residencies and special activities provided opportunities and space for artists such as Eyob Kitaba, commissioned to create the 10 meter high sculpture for the DH GEDA building on Bole Road. We hosted paint parties where leading Ethiopian artists would spend the day at the Village painting murals with the children through out the compound. Finally, we had many cathartic talks with the children about their artistic expressions while observing extreme change in behavior.
It was clear that The Village was utilizing art therapy, organically. Every poem read, every note sang, every drawing displayed, every touch and moment with an artist gave the children an occasion to heal. My maternal instincts and observations as to the power of the arts and artists on the children were continuously confirmed. Whether watching them being pried away from painting to eat lunch; listening to them speak about the significance of creating a piece unique to only them; or reviewing painful pieces depicting unspeakable experiences; it was clear to me. They were immersed in the process of creating art, as much as the process of self-healing? We witnessed behavioral changes from extreme aggression and frustration felt by these forgotten children who morphed into the most generous, caring and honest youth. They nurtured one another with goursha, a common tradition on the compound, especially on those days when there were more mouths to feed than expected. We turned no child away. Thirteen years later, The Village children are college graduates including art school; business owners; parents and new generation of givers, sponsoring kids to attend kindergarten under their own volition.
In closing, it is common to seek alternatives to improve and maintain mental and physical health and a daily dose of art is another regiment to add to exercise and healthy meals. And for the healthy person, trying to avoid reaching the point of needing a therapist, why not seek to relax the mind and body through art? Sip and Paint events; adult coloring books; visits to art exhibitions; and engaging in art activities at home or work during break time can relax the mind and ease some of the everyday stress. To quote activist and rap icon Mos Def, “African art is functional it serves a purpose. It should be healing, a source of joy. Spreading positive vibrations.”
Dr. Desta Meghoo is a Jamaican born Creative Consultant, Curator and cultural promoter based in Ethiopia since 2005. She also serves as Liaison to the AU for the Ghana based, Diaspora African Forum.