The art of creating amid a global catastrophe

Artwork: "COVID Warriors" by Mousumi Mani, 2020 (Electronic Art)

“A disaster is a misfortune that simply happens. In a catastrophe, there is an overturning — of the social structure, of people's awareness. The pandemic is an overturning. The only difference between a disaster and a catastrophe is the meaning that we create in it.” – Christopher Bailey

It was in the midst of a global catastrophe when a creative spark spurred Christopher Bailey, Lead of Arts and Health in the WHO, and Lisa Russell, Emmy-winning filmmaker and founder of Create2030, to organize the WHO x Create 2030 COVID-19 Arts Festival. Taking his cue from the Greeks, Bailey talked about the catastrophe in his closing statement of the festival’s session on Covid-19 and mental health — focusing on how art has become a source of healing and finding meaning in a world turned upside down.

The session was one of six events in this week’s line-up of online webinars that celebrates and highlights artists who have responded to the crisis through their artistic creations. Recordings of the week’s entire sessions can be found here.

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Poster for the COVID-19 Arts Festival by WHO x Create2030.

Why is this important? Along with the tourism industry, the creative and cultural sectors are among the most affected by the Covid-19 lockdowns, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The precarious nature of the creative economy has widely documented. The pandemic further exposed the “unsustainable price of creative and cultural work,” according to one review in the journal Cultural Trends, published last month.

And yet, from the beginning of the pandemic, it was artists who often allowed us to maintain our sense of humanity - and possibly our sanity - even while locked up at home. Russell explains,

“Apart from the medical frontliners, it is the artists who are the first to show up in a collective crisis — from creating community with DJs and performers on Instagram, to watching movies and films, to listening to music and painting… But the financial implications of working in a gig economy has been disastrous. The reality is many artists who rely on public gatherings for their livelihoods, lost work immediately.”

Virtual transformation. The irony of this situation is not lost on either Russell or Bailey. As such, Create2030 and the WHO have begun encouraging a larger conversation around how more serious steps could be taken to support works by the creative community.

What started out as a private Facebook group of around 700 members has turned into an online community of artists supporting one another’s works and ideas. This has led up to a virtual art gallery co-curated by Russell and Bailey, which highlights Covid-19 art from around the world, as well as provides artists with a platform to present their works.

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Screen capture of the COVID-19 Virtual Art Gallery on Kunstmatrix.

Mental healing through art. The larger conversation on supporting artists culminated in this week’s Arts Festival, including the series of Covid-19 and art discussions as a way of showcasing art’s growing relevance in this uncertain world. From youth poetry and well-being to hip hop (a first for the WHO), these discussions focused on how art has helped diminish the harmful effects of the pandemic. Among the mental health themes addressed:

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The #ClosetCostumeChallenge was a way of connecting with children with special needs even during the pandemic. Screen capture of the webinar.

  • Creative arts therapy amidst a pandemic. Nisha Sajnani, Associate Professor & Director, Drama Therapy and the Theatre & Health Lab, at NYU, discussed how the arts have helped differently-abled people, and people with special needs, to remain connected with those around them. Through improvisation and role-playing exercises over Zoom, art therapy fora were able to counter rising loneliness and depression among the most vulnerable and isolated.

  • Resonance through arts. Lene Søvold, a clinical psychologist from Norway, highlighted the role of the arts in opening up to one’s own turbulent emotions, saying “Arts is a way to open up clients — moving the person at the emotional and the mental level.”

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Artworks created during the lockdowns in the Better World Museum. Screen capture of the webinar.

  • Real belonging in the virtual world. Better World Museum Founding Director Paige Dasinger showcased how the project’s virtual museum has become a means for young people, in particular, to create real connections online, as a way to combat the increasing stress among teens brought about by the pandemic. The platform has also opened up opportunities for youth leaders to emerge in their own communities.

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The WHO has comissioned an children's book writer and artist to create a book about COVID-19. This has been adapted into many languages and formats. Screen capture from the webinar.

  • Art affecting policies. Fahmy Hanna, WHO mental health technical officer, pointed out that even before the pandemic, mental health infrastructure, especially in low- and middle- income countries, are sorely lacking. However, since the pandemic, mental health has received noticeably more attention from policymakers, particularly with regards to the welfare of health workers and others on the front lines, as well as related to the education of children and teens.

Moving the industry forward. The mental health toll brought about by the pandemic only magnified the already precarious situation most of the creative industry was facing. Russell points out that the art community and the gig economy needs real support from international donors now more than ever — similar to the opportunities that the WHO has provided. Asked about how the creative industry will be able to move forward, Russell says,

“I think the solutions are already there, but we have to challenge the current institutional culture that expects artists to donate their time. It’s not that intentions are bad, but the cultural norm in the development community has not seen artists as industry professionals who need to be compensated as any other industry.”

She adds,

“The reality is that with everything pivoting online, institutions still need video, illustrators, creators. But we also need more creative people in the planning process to advocate for artists. Instead of using stock footage, why not dedicate a part of the budget to creative professionals? A curator can help liases with artists… The potential is there, and it’s about changing the way we think. Don't ask for free art, license it."

The COVID-19 Arts Festival runs until Friday 31 July. For more information, visit their event page.