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Art and Anthropology

By Kathleen Downie, MA Social Anthropology

How do we engage anthropology as a discipline, and how does anthropology help us engage the surrounding world?

For over twenty years I have devoted much of my professional work as an educator to arts-in-healthcare facilitation, “a broad and growing academic discipline and field of practice dedicated to using the power of the arts to enhance human health and well-being” (Lambert, Betts, Rollins, Sonke & Swanson, 2017, p9). These endeavours, separate from art therapy, engage clinical patients of all ages in hands-on creative work that intend to support expression, and bolster feelings of well-being. Beyond the immediacy of a patient’s experience within hospital, arts-in-healthcare facilitation also reflects a broad interest in social outcomes for participants, their families, and carers who must contend with the on-going constraints and demands of chronic disease. These interests motivated me to pursue a graduate degree in social anthropology because I wanted to understand more deeply the dynamism and social value of the artmaking sessions that I had facilitated for participants with dementia, and their families and caregivers for over ten years. Thus, I engaged the discipline of anthropology to extend my professional approach to group artmaking sessions, with the recognition that an anthropological perspective would broaden my understanding of the arts-in-healthcare as a cultural-phenomena and deepen my practice.

Several years on, my completion of a degree in Social Anthropology was marked by a research study that I co-investigated at SickKids Hospital in Toronto. The project, entitled Drawing In: a sensory anthropology of drawing conceived as a mode of touch for parents of newborns in the NICU centred upon the facilitation of a novel art intervention for parents of very-low-birth-weight newborns. Isolated in incubators, pre-term babies are typically deprived of regular and sustained skin-to-skin contact, a deprivation that is shared by parents who long to touch, cuddle and hold their tiny newborns. The investigation, solely concerned with the loss of connection experienced by parents, asked whether and how drawing, as an embodied observational practice, might help parents of hospitalized newborns feel more connected to their babies.

The study yielded many positive results, providing insight into the experiences and needs of parents who must confront the care of a newborn in medical crisis. For-the-purposes of this brief article, I have chosen to focus on two phenomena observed during my time in the NICU. While these are not necessarily connected to drawing practice, they reflect a key focus of my methodology centred upon concepts of embodiment. Facilitating creative work with patient communities in hospitals, clinics, and care homes entails sensory attuning, attention to subtle details, and the extension of one’s-self toward others in need of assistance and reassurance. These embodied practices reflect “the body’s full participation in acts of perception” (Myers, 2015:18), which engage the cognitive, kinaesthetic, and affective functions of a whollyintegrated body. Such phenomena are a counterpoint to the mind-body duality of medicalized culture, which tends to dissociate from the unpredictability of embodied life.

This brings me to my first out-lying observation that many of the clinical practices that I witnessed in this highly specialized, state-of-the-art medical facility were imbued with embodied approaches to care. For example, music therapists who use Colwyn Trevarthen’s ‘communicative musicality’ to engage newborns in conversational musical play; nurses’ use of vocal chants and proximity to ‘touch’ newborns in their care; and the use of Kangaroo Care which attaches newborns to the bare breast of a parent for periods of sustained skin-to-skin contact.

Secondly, embodiment understood as visible presence flows through anthropology’s primary project of decolonization. Without a primer in the history, mechanisms, and effects of colonization, I would not have recognized a subtle act of racism revealed to me by an Indigenous parent who complained that the nurses would not use his child’s given Indigenous name. This disclosure is one that I will never forget, as it has heightened my awareness of the far-reaching impact of Colonialism. Further, it has instigated deeper reflection within me about Indigenous experience within colonized spaces, including hospitals. What was so remarkable about this revelation is that a small amount of effort made to recognize the importance of a baby’s name might easily have transformed this father’s experience of the NICU. We see how attention to seemingly small details make a world of difference to families in care.

Anthropological theory excites my perceptions of the world and brings new meaning to my understanding of social and cultural relations. While I initially engaged anthropology in response to a deep desire to grow professionally, it now motivates me to re-examine the familiar and pursue new understanding of the surrounding world.


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