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Tuesday 17 September 2019
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Commentary

Angels of disaster

Culture Matters

“But before I could sit on the roof to hold him, the gust from the hurricane dragged him across the roof back into the surge on the next side...I still could remember him reaching for me and calling me, ‘Daddy...I ain’t find nothing. I come back up. I hold my breath and I gone back down again. All this time, people carried my wife to safety and they calling me, but I ain’t want to go because I didn’t want to leave my son.”

– Extract from the Nassau Guardian

IT IS POSSIBLE that the loss of a child is the greatest pain on earth. The trauma of this father in the Bahamas is unimaginable; the choice for the rest of us, simply to look on from the outside and offer words and acts of comfort.

In times of crisis, the instinct of the artist is to turn to the canvas, the dance studio or the blank page as a resource for healing.

In searching for a way to write my own humble tribute to the survivors of Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas, I drew inspiration from others who have experienced the trauma of natural disaster and used their art to “heal invisible wounds.”

Angels made out of the debris of a devastating tornado in Joplin, USA; paintings that reflect the devastation in Dominica after Hurricane Maria; awe-inspiring 3D sculpture depicting the aftermath of 9/11 in New York. Humanitarian organisations well understand the need for psychosocial counselling after the physical and mental dislocation of a natural disaster.

However, as one clinical psychologist discovered after brutal attacks in Nigeria, the arts can add another, much needed dimension to standard medical practice.

She recalls that her “team realised that many survivors, including children, were experiencing acute trauma responses, including numbing, emotional detachment, muteness, depersonalisation, psychogenic amnesia.

“They also had continued re-experiencing of the event via thoughts, dreams and flashbacks, as well as avoidance of any stimulation that reminded them of the event.”

To treat with these challenges, they successfully incorporated theatre, drawing and other creative methods into the clinical treatment.

Of course, it is much too early to think of artistic solutions for Bahamians. They need to consider the practical realities of food, shelter and rebuilding lives. But how do we incorporate the arts into medical treatment?

Trauma often forces people to retreat emotionally; for children it is even more difficult to understand, articulate and process what has happened. Artistic projects allow the people who have experienced tragedy to “express their feelings, grow resiliency, and heal.”

Artistic activities also allow a sense of distance from the traumatic event. By transferring memories to paper, through movement or in a painting, it is a symbolic yet critical way of unlocking pain and unpacking it in manageable portions.

Through the work of our NGO, we experienced this transference with incarcerated youth. They spent ages creating a piece of art that told their story, making it perfect, perhaps as they wished their own reality to be.

We discovered after that they kept their art and put it up in their rooms (prison cells) as if to proclaim, “I have created something, I have worth, I deserve to heal so I can move on with my life.”

Tricia Courtney, the artist who made beautiful and poignant angels from the tornado debris in Joplin, was uneasy about the perception of profiting from a disaster. Initially, she gave away her angels, but then found a way to sell her creations and donate the proceeds to people who are affected by this type of catastrophe.

She was convinced by family and friends to keep making them. She ended up selling hundreds of angels and writes that eventually “many people brought me debris from their homes, so I could create special angels for them or their loved ones...Many of these people shared their stories with me. Where they were when the tornado hit, how they survived, and how they were coping.”

Artists cannot return the son to the grieving father or the possessions that have been lost. But, when the time is right, Bahamians should reach into their culture – seek inspiration from the Akan warrior called John Canoe by the Europeans, and who motivates their Junkanoo carnival, their goombay, cow bells, whistles and horns – look deep into their cultural soul to find the solutions.

Artists cannot return what was lost, but through the strength of our culture we can help survivors of disasters build resilience, heal and live again.

Dara E Healy is a performance artist, communications specialist and founder of the NGO, the Indigenous Creative Arts Network – ICAN

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