Art is a catalyst. It can humanize and showcase the voices of those who many not possess another place or platform to articulate their pain and struggle. It unleashes liberty, to unearth not only worth in the world around us, but also merit inside ourselves, in our own intangible thoughts and dreams. It is an influential tool to surpass barriers and evoke change. I have long thought that art allows us to express, experience, learn, and simply, live. Yet, often times, I believe we get bogged down with the heavy question of “what is art?” instead of the deeper, stirring question “what is art for?”
In our drives around Cape Town, I was continually struck by the juxtapositions of wealthy seaside homes with arrays of informal housing situated practically next to them. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen such stark inequalities positioned so close. Yet, my mind wished to somehow secure itself with x-ray vision, to dive through the barriers of these structures and see the occupants who resided within those walls. In both areas, I wondered how they felt about their lives, what their wildest dreams were, if they were dancing in joy or shriveled in pain, and how healthy they were. As we drove past the vibrant, sturdy structures of wealthy Cape Town and the dilapidated structures of townships, there existed immense gaps between those who inhabited those structures—not just the gap of wealth, but the gap of health.
We often learn in public health classes that socioeconomic status and wealth are the largest social determinants of whether an individual will be healthy. The social determinants of health are the health-impacting conditions in which people grow up, live, work, pray, and play, and they include education, food, transportation, place, and social status. As we have discussed in my classes, some social determinants of health commence even before a child is born; these include their mother’s health, opportunities for education, and access to basic necessities such as adequate nutrition, safe drinking water, and housing, which can protect health. However, the lack of those necessities can break it down. As we have continued to learn about the rampant injustices put forth by Apartheid, we have noted the social, economic, and health advantages that have been provided to those that are white. This notion is echoed in the reading, “An Epidemic Waiting to Happen,” which explains that a disease, like HIV/AIDS, has social constructions which have “sociopolitical implications”, including racial divisions in the country (Marks, 2002). Conclusions like these have made me realize that it is not purely HIV and AIDS, or Tuberculosis, or a host of other serious infectious diseases that are the mere problem. These diseases are rather indications, or manifestations, of the weakened health of those that have been dealt inferior shelters, educational and health facilities, and opportunities. Those diseases and general discrepancies in health represent the so short yet so long distances between places such as Hermanus and Zwelihle, fueling the air between them with the stench of inequity.
Along our travels in Cape Town though, we were exposed multiple times to the wonders of art and entrepreneurship, and how those ribbons could be woven together in such a valuable manner, forming the emergence of wealth, and in turn, expectantly, the presence of health too. TBag Designs was the first of these endeavors we explored. Often, tea bags are discarded in some manner, similar to the way in which some women in the Langa Township may feel discarded by a government and system that hasn’t worked for them. The project, started by Jill Heyes, has provided several women and their families an opportunity to climb out of extreme poverty (T-Bag Shop, n.d). In the informational video we watched there, it was clear that their work impacted them positively financially, and I imagine that income has contributed to their physical health positively too. It has provided employment for the women, which could translate into income used for doctor’s visits, food, and their children’s education, which could lead them out of poverty. Tea bags, paints, and paper, emboldened by the fuel of creativity, came to life, and in turn, gave a better life to the women who fashioned them into art.
Yet, as we watched the video and toured the space, I imagined that the mental, emotional, spiritual, and social benefits, while perhaps not greatly discussed, were profound as well. I have often believed that the arts possess a cathartic, restorative, and healing power, which is echoed by a journal article titled “The Connection Between Art, Healing, and Public Health: A Review of Current Literature.” It explains that the arts can accompany the typical biomedical approach taken to health, in shifting the focal point away from purely pathology and symptoms, but rather, the holistic nature of a person and their health, which to me, very much mirrors the approach of examining social determinants of health. As the journal article further explains, when individuals are engaged in creativity, they can better find their identity and heal (Stuckey & Nobel, 2010). I imagined that the work of TBag Designs has provided a voice for the voiceless, and a sense of faith amidst hardship, hunger, and pain. Just as a tea bag dispenses into water and releases a throng of herbs, smells, flavors, and colors that didn’t previously exist before, for the women working at TBag Designs, they have grown and cultivated the seeds of a sustainable living, self-respect and esteem, and commitment, in what may have felt like an unfertile garden before.
I am majoring in Public Health and Communication Design back at Elon, and I feel that the far-reaching benefits of art and creation are often underestimated. Yet, TBag Designs, amongst other organizations like MonkeyBiz and the Philani Maternal, Child Health, and Nutrition Project, showcase that art can be the passage that transports people to an improved quality of life. In addition to the financial benefits, it can lead to improvements in medical outcomes and social networks, as well as reductions in stress, anxiety, and depression (Clear, 2015).
We have discussed often in class about the intersections of art and social justice, and we have seen firsthand how art forms such as poetry, theatre, and visual arts can generate awareness and education on public health and social issues, impact culture, and serve as a tool of grassroots activism. I am passionate about these wide-ranging and wide-scale uses, but it is amazing to me that at a more elemental level, art can be used as the hands to lift people out of poverty and into a better space financially, physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and socially, in turn benefiting both individual and communal health.
In seeing firsthand these far-reaching benefits of art, and circling back to the social determinants of health, I believe that art should definitely be considered a social determinant of health too, like education or housing. Further, I wonder why it isn’t, currently. It is a form of extensive activism and an individual healer. I see art as inclusive, supportive of health and well-being, and not just a bridge to personal health, but a link embodying the interconnectedness of individual and community health. Journeying back home, how can we as students, volunteers, and citizens of the world foster the use of art as a bridge to improved health, to ignite its philanthropic and restorative powers, and make sure that it is included in conversations and programs regarding health? Like I mentioned at the start, I find art to be a catalyst, to set change into motion. It is at the heart of the story of the women in Langa. Moving forward, let us hold and light the prevailing flames of art, for when it its energy is used to lift people into a better life, it manifests into an instrument of healing, fairness, development, and heart. Let us play on.
Clear, J. (2015, December 23). Make More Art: The Health Benefits of Creativity.
Retrieved January 21, 2017, from Huffington Post website: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/james-clear/make-more-art-the-health-benefits-of-creativity_b_8868802.html
Heather L. Stuckey, & Nobel, J. (2010). The Connection Between Art, Healing, and Public Health: A Review of Current Literature. American Journal of Public Health, 100(2), 254-263. http://dx.doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2008.156497
Marks, S. (2002). An Epidemic Waiting to Happen? The Spread of HIV/AIDS in South Africa in Social and Historical Perspective. African Studies, 61(1), 13-26. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00020180220140055
T-Bag Shop. (n.d.). About. Retrieved January 21, 2017, from Original TBag Designs website: http://www.tbagdesigns.co.za/about/