Art of Medicine
A painting of two African girls orphaned by AIDS is featured in the Art of Medicine section in the Summer 2009 issue of Dartmouth Medicine. Titled "Sisters," it is the work of a second-year Dartmouth medical student who grew up in Zimbabwe. Here, she explains the genesis of the featured painting and shares some of her other work.
Art with impact
Despite the high prevalence of HIV in sub-Saharan Africa, the epidemic in Zimbabwe remained an abstraction for me until I witnessed its debilitating effect on the family of our domestic worker, Lily—who was practically like family after living with us for over 15 years. Her 23-year-old daughter, Essie, contracted HIV but lived in denial about the disease until it was too late. I clearly remember the day I visited Essie in December 2004. I scarcely recognized her frail, skeletal form, bulging eyes, and protruding cheek bones. I mourned the loss of this beautiful mother of two who was withering away as the virus mercilessly depleted her CD4 count. Growing up, I had admired Essie. She was a stunning, confident, charismatic woman. It was emotionally challenging to see her emaciated figure lying there helpless; as she struggled to communicate with me, she was barely able to hold up her own head.
Five months later, Essie died. This tragedy forced Lily to assume the dual role of mother and grandmother to Farai and Nyasha, age 5 and 2. With their childlike simplicity, they could not fathom their mother's sudden disappearance. Watching Lily cope with her grief while remaining strong for her grandson and granddaughter forced me to confront the reality and impact of HIV/AIDS—the suffering, the death, and the difficulties for those left behind. This heart-wrenching situation increased my awareness and empathy for AIDS orphans like Farai and Nyasha.
As part of my senior independent art project at Lafayette College, I could have chosen to paint something picturesque and conventional, such as a variety of landscapes. But instead, I felt an emotional tug to do something more meaningful. Inspired by the story of Farai and Nyasha, I decided to create some paintings to portray the suffering and vulnerability of African orphans. According to UNICEF, in 2007, an estimated 1 million Zimbabwean children were AIDS orphans, having lost one or both parents to the epidemic. I wanted to use my art as a vessel to increase the awareness of how HIV impacts young children in Africa. In order to accentuate the emotional strain and hardships experienced by African orphans, I decided to contrast the intimate parent-child relationships every child deserves with the experiences of AIDS orphans who are deprived of these interactions and are often forced to live in a child-run household.
The first pair of paintings is "Sisters" and "Amai na Mwana." I used similar tonal variation for both works, but I hoped to evoke different emotional responses with each one. "Sisters" depicts a young girl, orphaned by AIDS, fetching water to care for herself and her younger sister, whom she is carrying on her back. I tried to portray sadness, but determination and hope, as she keeps her chin up bravely and walks determinedly to the river. "Amai na Mwana"—which means "mother and child" in Shona, a Zimbabwean language—is meant to portray the intimacy between a mother and child as a contrast to the orphaned sisters. The baby is clinging to its mother, who holds the infant close to her heart. The mother's far-off look reveals her frailty and feminine vulnerability, even though she is a refuge for her daughter.
The second pair of paintings is "Paternal Pride" and "A Call to Heaven." I used similar diagonal composition elements in both but hoped to portray different emotional components of the human spirit. In "Paternal Pride," I tried to capture the essence of a father-son relationship, showing their interaction and closeness through their expressions. The painting is based on a photograph of a Zimbabwean gardener and his son, who is named Pride. The look in Pride's eyes reveals a child-like innocence as he stares curiously at the viewer, while his father smiles quietly (and proudly) in the background. "A Call to Heaven" was inspired by a true story about Farai and Nyasha. Nyasha would often say to her grandmother, "Gogo, doesn't God have a telephone? Can't I call him to speak to Mama?" I tried to portray Nyasha staring into the big blue sky, struggling to understand why she can't call heaven to speak to her mother. In the distance, looking on, are her grandmother, Lily, and brother, Farai, who share her loss and confusion but are helpless to do anything to ease her pain. The path symbolizes their bond and connection to the young girl. The distance between them, however, illustrates the fact that they have moved on and are waiting for her to join them in dealing with their grief together.
I have entitled this series of four paintings "The Impact of AIDS on African Children." I would like to expand the series at some point and hope to incorporate into it more real-life stories, creating powerful images that can evoke deep emotional reactions. For example, I would like to represent the emotional and physical strain endured by young South African girls who are sometimes forced to care for their dying parents because the parents, afraid of the stigma associated with HIV/AIDS, refuse to turn to other family members for help. I would also like to explore how some orphans are forced to survive on their own as "street kids."
Since coming to study in America, I have allowed my perspective growing up in Africa to influence the way I communicate my thoughts through art. For example, for an assignment to create a work as an emotional response (not an illustration) of a poem or song, I did an acrylic painting based on a poem titled "Cry African Girl" by Handsen Chikowore, a Zimbabwean poet. The poem describes how a young girl is confined to a life of domestication—fetching water, sweeping, and caring for her younger sibling. She has been denied education and is victimized in her community, yet the poem calls for perseverance and courage and speaks of hope for a better era.
Art has always been a therapeutic outlet for me, and it continues to be one—especially in helping me deal with the stresses of medical school. During my transition to medical school, I was finding it hard to carve out the time to do art. So I used to get my art "fix" when I was studying anatomy. I would use watercolor pencils to draw and paint images from our textbook to make "Anatomy Flashcards." I found this an extremely helpful way to learn the spatial relationships among different anatomical structures, and I found it easier to recall information after completing these. As a result, by far, during my first term at least, I loved studying anatomy the most!
I also used art in an assignment for our On Doctoring course, to create a "Cadaver Story." Instead of writing an essay, I composed a poem and illustrated my interpretation of my first interactions with my cadaver.
In addition to my involvement in the visual arts, I have also been very involved in the performing arts since a young age. I have trained in ballet, acrobatics, modern and ballroom dancing, piano, flute, and voice.
I hope to use art in my medical practice one day. Right now, I'm thinking of going into pediatrics, and I'm also very interested in international health. While I was at Lafayette College, I had the opportunity to study abroad during the summer of 2006 in London, where I worked in the hospital play-therapy department of University College of London Hospital. I helped to organize art activities for pediatric inpatients in the general and oncology wards, either in the playroom or at their bedside. Through this experience, I gained insight into how art and play can serve a therapeutic role as a coping strategy for children who are dealing with serious illnesses such as cancer.
At Dartmouth, I have become involved in "Dartmouth Art for Kids," started by Cindy Nu Chai two years ago). This is an art program at the AVA Gallery in Lebanon, N.H., for children with chronic illnesses whose families are enrolled in the Medical School's Partners in Health program. Volunteers work individually with each child to guide them through various fun art projects. We encourage them to take full charge of how to accomplish the project, and we focus on helping the children to enjoy the creative process rather than perfecting a finished project. I'm looking forward to co-running the program next year, and we're hoping to expand it to also include patients at the Children's Hospital at Dartmouth.
In terms of my own work, I especially enjoy painting with acrylics because I like to paint in layers and often paint over the same area several times before I get the look I want. I also like the effect with acrylics of mixing colors on my work surface, as well as the ability to create different textures with my brush strokes. But I also like working with watercolors and enjoy sketching, too.
I equally enjoy painting people and landscapes. When I was younger, I actually used to avoid painting people because I thought they were too difficult. It wasn't until the end of high school that one of my art teachers taught me how to visualize a face and break it into elements in order to represent it accurately. I didn't quite master this until the end of college, when I completed the "Impact of AIDS" series. So in addition to wanting to increase awareness about African AIDS orphans, I think I chose the subject because I wanted to challenge myself to become more competent and comfortable with painting people.
I also like landscapes. Two of my favorite paintings are watercolors of a Canadian sunset at 10:00 p.m. and of a Zimbabwean landscape. I also used to enjoy painting still lifes, but it's been a while since I have had the time to do any. Another subject I especially like is flowers—"Sunflowers," an acrylic painting, is one of my favorites.
Since coming to America, I have also been drawn to paint things associated with Zimbabwe and/or subjects that reflect my interest in the performing arts. For example, for an assignment to complete a cubist-inspired work, I did an acrylic painting ("Cubist Dancers") that incorporated overlapping silhouettes of dancers. I used delicate tonal variation, as well as curved and angular spaces, to indicate dance movement within a shallow space.
Sometimes my choice of subjects is just random—whatever I feel like doing. For instance, I once felt the urge to do a pencil sketch of a photo of my brother and me when we were young. So I used the square-by-square method, focusing on one tiny square of the picture at a time, to create a very close copy of the original. I called it "Amigos Para Siempre."
I've always loved the Impressionists—particularly Degas, probably because of his extensive series of ballet dancers, since I have done ballet for more than 13 years. I don't necessarily imitate the Impressionist style, but I do admire the effect.
I've loved drawing and painting ever since I can remember. Recognizing my passion for art, my parents always encouraged me to continue pursuing it and my art teachers along the way have helped to develop and nurture my interest. Now, I am starting to organize regular group art sessions with some of my artistically inclined classmates. I hope to continue to create work to further a specific cause, such as using my art to increase awareness of African AIDS orphans.
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