The oldest art objects in the world — 100,000-year-old paint making kits — were discovered in a South African oceanside cave in 2012. As human population grew and expanded across and beyond Africa, art enabled us to analyze events, create meaning and integrate lessons into our lives. Mark Modimola, a South African artist, illustrator and designer, is now adding to that long history in collaboration with Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center on a new project that explores themes of nature, time, access, hope, healing and the future.
“I view art not only as a pastime or a hobby or something that brings people joy. Being an artist is a responsibility. You become a flag bearer for your times. So, my responsibility is to be vigilant and make a response,” said Modimola, who says he is attracted to color and texture as he examines African identity and spirituality through portraiture and surrealism.
The thought he puts into his work is one of the reasons Fred Hutch’s Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion chose Modimola as the first artist for their Public Art and Community Dialogue Program. An artwork he created through the program was installed on top of the Yale Building on the Hutch campus, facing the I-5 Mercer Street interchange, on June 21. It replaces the Black Lives Matter banner currently on display.
That BLM banner was put up in response to the murder of George Floyd and the resulting nationwide protests against police brutality. Modimola’s artwork isn’t so much a replacement of the banner as it is the next logical step for Fred Hutch to reflect community solidarity and sustain the conversation.
“This program offers us an opportunity to make an authentic statement about community, health and healing within the context of persistent social detractors of health, like racism and other systems of oppression,” said Dr. Paul Buckley, vice president for Diversity, Equity & Inclusion at Fred Hutch. “We wanted to respond to the injustices happening around us with a series of images that reinforce our dedication to affirm the lives of marginalized communities — from the Black community to the Indigenous, Hispanic, Asian and Pacific Islander, LGBTQIA+ and Jewish communities.”
“Beyond raising these flags and banners, we hope the art pieces that will be installed over the next year and a half will inspire deep reflection and conversation that leads individuals and groups to see each other’s humanity with a greater sense of appreciation and care,” Buckley said.
The public art program’s first call was to Black artists across the Pacific Northwest, Uganda and South Africa, where Fred Hutch has established programs. (The second call, for Indigenous artists, has closed, and this artwork will be revealed on Oct. 10, Indigenous Peoples Day.)
Modimola’s submission caught the committee’s attention.
“He impressed us with his perspective of the underlying humanity within medicine and communal healing. He approaches his art in a holistic and beautiful way that holds space for conversations,” Buckley said.
Modimola, who previously traveled to the United States while pursuing a Fulbright scholarship, is keenly aware of the multi-generational trauma Black people have suffered, both in the USA and in South Africa.
“Black people exist in a state of anxious survival,” said Modimola, who is returning to the U.S. this month for his new work’s installation ceremony. “I responded to Fred Hutch’s open call because you are addressing issues of disenfranchisement. You’re addressing issues of historical imbalances. You’re addressing historical trauma. These issues have manifested themselves in the loss of land, the loss of culture, the loss of people. What you’re trying to do is create a conversation that recognizes us as people and doesn’t put us as second-class citizens, which I fear a lot of institutions and systems have.
“So, I felt as though it’s a great opportunity for myself as an African to represent the healing I feel we need as Black people,” Modimola said.
A growing body of work suggests art is an instrument of healing. In recent years, there have been major art shows focused on wellbeing and trauma awareness, and even governmental reports on the impact of art on health. In one recent British study, art workshops decreased symptoms of mental illness by more than 70%.
“Art can harness the healing power within each of us and help bring us into community with one another. When in front of an artwork, we are connected to the artist and to others who have experienced it,” wrote The Museum of Modern Art’s Associate Educator Jackie Armstrong in 2021.
Modimola agrees that art can heal, and he says healing is even in his blood.
“I come from a family of healers. My mother is a nurse. She taught me most of what I understand about what it means to be a healer. My grandmother is a healer in her own right, and so is my aunt; she is a practicing traditional healer,” said Modimola.
Modimola said both art and healing require a process of communication: “A lot of my work is conversation. It comes from observing what ailment I might recognize in the Black community, what kind of disorder and discomfort might be coming to our people, and I initiate conversations by asking questions, the same way a doctor would ask if your back hurts when you sit.”
'My work aims to address our access to land which we use to also heal ourselves, land we have been historically denied and displaced from.'
Bridgette Hempstead, a metastatic breast cancer patient and the president of Cierra Sisters, a Seattle-based advocacy organization for African American women with breast cancer, agrees there is a need for conversation — and more.
“We can’t stop advocating, educating, providing tools, calling racism out, reporting what does not feel right when it comes down to the health care of our Black, brown and LGBTQ community members,” Hempstead said. “The reason I say this is, my diagnosis was in 1996, and a lot has happened in 26 years. However, the survival rate has not changed for the Black woman. ‘I Have a Dream’ is not here yet. We’re working for our fair share of survival.”
In his new piece for the Hutch, Modimola expresses how that racism and disenfranchisement has an impact on health.
“My aim with this artwork is to address access to medicine,” said Modimola. “The medical industry can sometimes be prejudiced against giving quality access to treatment and medicine to all groups of society, specifically marginalized people. Looking at where many medicines are sourced, it becomes evident that the land is medicine, not only for our bodies but our spirits. My work aims to address our access to land which we use to also heal ourselves, land we have been historically denied and displaced from.”
Art can inspire and help us envision the future. Before Modimola created his commission for the Hutch, a series of three dialogues with the community, hosted by the Fred Hutch Office of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, explored what they hope Modimola’s artwork would envision. The dialogues informed the work he created.
“The discussions were enlightening and grounding. It is comforting to receive confirmation that we share similar struggles, perspectives and aspirations. It was helpful to sit down with Black Americans and understand their observations about our societies and the way forward,” said Modimola.
John Masembe, a patient navigator at Fred Hutch who spoke during the dialogue sessions, hopes the art helps problems become more visible.
“One of the first things I think about is visibility, and creating an open dialogue, stepping into other people’s shoes by allowing them to express themselves. The last thing I’d say is to create a little solidarity,” said Masembe.
Other participants spoke about Black patients being heard in health care.
“I envision health facilities that will treat us like we’re not some alien. I envision a healthy community where a Black person can go to the hospital and the doctor doesn’t ask them ‘Why are you in my hospital?’ I envision that our community will feel like they are heard and not feel like they are silenced, and that they will get the proper treatment,” Hempstead said.
But it’s not only about being heard.
“I’m looking forward to resources not being capped or not being questioned when it goes to Black communities. I’m looking forward to seeing policies change within our government systems that ensure that Black people are well,” said Dr. Stephaun Wallace, director of external relations for the HIV Vaccine Trials Network and the COVID-19 Prevention Network. “That includes where buildings are built. That includes where trash dumps are created. That includes where power lines are constructed. That includes the stability of a neighborhood. That includes where liquor stores are placed. This is across the board for me.”
The artwork that will soon speak from the Hutch campus to passersby responds to the hopes and struggles expressed by Wallace and the other dialogue participants. It grows out of Modimola’s family tradition of healing and his sense of responsibility to respond through art to injustice. And while it is new — created just weeks ago — Modimola sees it as a continuation of something that began long ago.
Modimola thinks about the South African artists who first used those paint-making kits 100,000 years ago. He thinks about the meaning they put into their artworks, the struggles they grappled with in paint. What did they talk about as they worked? What healing did they seek?
“I sometimes feel as though I am picking up on conversations that were had around the fire thousands of years ago,” said Modimola. “I can source pigments, create brushes, make studies, immortalize natural forms and ensure that our experience travels across time. As I think on my ancestors who painted the great caves that we lived in those many years ago, I feel connected to their visions and understanding of the power of stories.”
On April 1, 2022, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and Seattle Cancer Care Alliance became Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, a single, independent, nonprofit organization that is also a clinically integrated part of UW Medicine and UW Medicine’s cancer program. Read more about the restructure.
Robert Hood is the senior multimedia producer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. He worked on the award-winning multimedia team at MSNBC.com and NBCNews.com for almost two decades, covering national and international news and coordinating special projects. Before that he taught photojournalism at the University of Missouri, worked as a newspaper page designer in Missouri, and worked as a newspaper photojournalist in Missouri, Wyoming and Utah. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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