The Wellcome Collection in Euston calls itself the “free destination for the incurably curious”, a place to explore medicine and its relationship with life and art in a broad and multidisciplinary way. I have to say that this tagline seems appropriate; this tendency is reflected in its temporary exhibitions as much as in the surprising and varied permanent collection, covering topics in a way that is truly multimedia, bouncing across boundaries from association to illuminating association..
Their newest show is called ‘Foreign Bodies, Common Ground’, and deals with a set of residencies set up to consider the question of global health. As the website explains, global health is a growing concept with a variety of implications; though the spread of disease is a physical and local process, its research and treatment is something that we can consider in a global context. Once a cure exists, it seems logical to assume that it will treat the same disease on different sides of the globe in the same way. How it gets there, however, is subject to forces of politics, communication and culture that are often as difficult to identify as to navigate. To explore this topic, artists were asked to carry out six-month residencies in Wellcome Trust-funded research centres in Kenya, Malawi, South Africa, Thailand, Vietnam and the UK. This exhibition comprises the work produced during this time, as well as documentation of and comment on their experiences.
After the colourful world map on the wall, oversized pinheads marking out the health centres spread across three continents, the first work that I encountered on entering the exhibition was for me a little jarring. Ushered in by an attendant who didn’t seem to have yet had much practice at this part, I found a map strangely similar in form to a tribal mask labelling a long set of beads, which the attendant nervously explained to me were each made from fossils from a stage in the world’s history. As I regarded this strangely meaningless list of dates and places he hastened to add that the actual necklace was in the next room, and that I should take a magnifying glass as some of the beads were very small. I entered the darkened space to find the thing itself, dramatically lit and hanging in space like an invitation. The beads were all very small. They were all the same size. Each of these tiny pieces of history had been made more or less identical, some with a little beautiful detail to be seen by gymnastics to pick out the right side in the one-directional light, but its overall form serving only to highlight the fact that when removed from their labels to the non-expert eye most fossils look more or less alike. I left confused.
Moving on to the rest of the show I found myself in a very different space. Listening to the pieces of music collected by Elson Kambalu the connection was immediate, sparse Malawi music with lyrics in English attempting to dispel the myth that sex with a virgin will cure AIDs, direct and affecting. There were paintings done by local children exploring the divide between the health centre and everyday life, baffling of course in the way that naïve communication always is to the overwrought mind. Most unsettling was the Kafukufuku Man and Kafukufuku Woman, totems connected by string to a small box of unknown samples. Kafukufuku Woman translates to Research Woman, a mythical figure that has been drilled for her blood. The label explains the Health Centre’s efforts to dispel the myth that they are taking people’s blood in order to sell it, the box between the Kafukufuku Man and Kafukufuku Woman with its mysterious packages and samples an insight into how the health centre appears to the community around it.
These myths are at the centre of Kambalu’s exploration, focusing on the difficulties presented by misunderstanding and hostility. But barriers are formed by all kinds of myths, and some are highlighted elsewhere in the show. Lena Bui when filming the ‘feather village’ in Vietnam, in which huge amounts of feathers are sorted and sold, found that the villagers were at first suspicious and reticent after all the negative coverage brought by Bird Flu. Zwelethu Mthethwa’s Impilo Engcono, or Good Health, is a photo series created by local young adults who were given photography lessons and asked to take photos around the subject of good health, in a community that is internationally often defined by its troubles. Our assumptions from far across the sea can be just as ill-informed and unhelpful.
Though it is not overtly referenced in the exhibition, and perhaps rightly so, it is interesting that the artists have been selected from within the countries where the centres are located. Some seem considerably more culturally connected to their location than the scientists working in the centres. Lena Bui describes how “…[t]he locals complained that it was bad luck to go to people’s houses and ask about sickness: “They don’t like it, all the talk about disease.” […] Ideally, the team would like an anthropologist to help them design questionnaires, but people specializing in South-east Asian farming practice and interactions with animals are hard to come by.”. That isn’t the only difficulty; Kambalu describes the problems posed by language and educational basis. “Many medical words are almost untranslatable. How does one explain “DNA” or “sequencing” or “genomics” in Chichewa dialect to an illiterate woman?”. In this video, at 3.08, Bui describes some of the politics of language even for workers in the health centres. “People who work at OUCRU, they all have to learn English. Because a lot of the most recent published researches are in English, and if they want to published in an international science magazine they have to write it in English as well. So, on top of gaining in-depth knowledge of the subject matter, they also have to acquire English!” So if you want to engage with the scientific community, it must be on the terms of the English-speaking world.
Miriam Syowia Kyambi and James Muriuki’s photo project explores the one-sidedness of another symbol of the established scientific community. They take the symbol of the white coat and rethink it, decorating them with gold and a variety of patterns that South Africans might choose and identify with, and encouraging locals to come into a specially-built set to take on the role of the scientist researcher. The symbolic message is clear, that the scientist role must be broadened and taken ownership of by the people of a country for the Health Centre to connect and become part of its culture; perhaps posing for a few moments with a camera will be an opportunity to entertain an unconsidered possibility. But in fact in this instance the set feels like a toy, and by extension the role-players become children. Power remains with the photographer, the more knowing agent, who is playing with the rules and the money provided by a British organisation.
At times it is nice to remember that this egocentricism is somewhat universal. In this video at 7.30 theThai dance group B-floor describe how when working with Malaria researchers they found that people working with Malaria for a long period start to be fascinated by the organism in a different way, “the disease itself – the way it mutates inside the cells, is beautiful”. It is, of course, only from our human perspective that it should be anything else, just as it is only a biophiliac perspective that the preservation of species is a good thing to pursue. Our most deeply rooted assumptions are often the most powerful.
In this context, the cold historical attitude of the necklace begins to make a little more sense. It is hardly the case that there are no pressing issues in health research in this country. Questions of ethics are hotly debated, money vs. efficacy, what constitutes the ‘correct’ path. But perhaps the most difficult questions are the least examined. I know a woman who qualified as a doctor but found the whole attitude in this country toward death to be so problematic that she did not feel able to practise. The offering in our country however is cold, conceptual, holds humans in general to be insignificant whilst simultaneously assuming our omnipotence, hanging the whole of history around our necks as an ornament. Perhaps this is where an assumed education has taken us. Questions of humanity have become irrelevant, or so we flatter ourselves. Privilege breeds an even more profound disengagement. Or perhaps what is embodied here is an absolute surrender to the experts. We feel as if we need not bother ourselves with such debates, because it is all being taken care of; reassured by the complicated but inaccessible display on the wall that something profound is going on here, we feel freed to walk into the darkness and admire the pretty beads.
Of the artists, only 4 seem to plan to attend the exhibition. These works were shown in their own countries as well, but their collaborators and subjects will never see those works in combination, set in perspective against one another. This examination of the relationship of health centre to community will have asked and answered important questions but the bigger picture is reserved for those with the money and ability to go and see it, just as the exhibition guide is reserved for those who have a fiver to spend on it. The result is a one-way inclusion – we bring them to us, but the dialogue moves in one direction at a time.
The contradiction to this statement, however, is almost inevitably to be found on the Wellcome Collection’s website. The exhibition guide soon turned out to be limited enough to summarise in a few notes, but the Art in Global Health website constitutes a broad exploration of the experiences of the artists, their reflections, work and interactions. This film could be viewed from anywhere at all, and shows a slice of the participants and locations all jammed together in uninhibited reflections. The digital divide still exists, the internet is not as easy to access or to make use of everywhere as it is here, but its reach is spreading, in the internet cafés popping up like mushrooms across Indonesian cities and the kiosks in urban Africa. Normally I struggle to connect with any work of art without being able to relate to it physically but this time however much I circled the works in their gallery context they felt flat and disconnected, props for a play I had not seen. But when I got home and started to reflect, to read the stories, to learn about the people and their lives, I began to get it. It was when I sat staring at my computer screen, watching a scooter zoom down a dusty track down which I will never walk, hearing chatter in a language I did not know and remembering the profundity of our mutual incomprehension, that the works came to life.