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‘Science meets art’ exhibit addresses stigma of illness
Author: Wiida Fourie-Basson
Published: 05/02/2021

The public has until the end of February to visit a unique exhibition at the interface of science, art and the stigma around illness at the Rupert Museum in Stellenbosch.

The exhibit, 'Science meets Art: Art addressing stigma in illness', is an initiative of the postgraduate students in Physiological Sciences at Stellenbosch University (SU), in collaboration with Prof Elmarie Constandius from the SU Department of Visual Arts, and the Rupert Museum. It involves curated micrograph images of cells and cell processes associated with neurodegenerative illnesses such as Alzheimer's disease and depression, as well as cancer. They were produced by Prof Ben Loos and the postgraduate students in his research group.

Prof Loos says his students realised there is a need in African communities to understand mental illness and neurodegeneration better. Often, the scientific nomenclature for these diseases does not exist in African languages, or their African names are unknown, making communication a particular challenge.

The curator of the collection, Elizabeth Miller-Vermeulen, then worked with six artists from Kayamandi and Gordon's Bay to engage with the micrographs and articulate their interpretation of it through various mediums, including beadwork, recycled material and paper.

The collection is beautifully captured in a full-colour brochure, with explanations of the micrographs and accompanying artworks in English and isiXhosa. There is an effort underway to have the text translated into more languages in an effort to reach out to more communities.

During an interactive workshop on 30 January this year, Miller-Vermeulen explained how a beautifully crafted beaded basket by artist Nomsa Mukwira, based on a micrograph of a brain cancer sphere (human glioma) imaged by PhD student Jurgen Kriel, can become the visual link to help a community talk about and deal with an illness that is mostly hidden to us.

The artworks therefore become the entry point to discuss symptoms such as depression and forgetfulness, associated with mental illnesses such as dementia, Alzheimer's disease and adolescent depression.

According to Miller-Vermeulen, completing the exhibit during strict lockdown conditions last year was a huge challenge, but at the same time it provided a lifeline to the artists involved, as so many other exhibitions were cancelled.

“I want to thank the Rupert Museum for hosting this exhibit. Working towards completing it on time became a symbol of hope and survival for all involved."

The postgraduate students, postdoctoral fellows and colleagues involved are: Dr André du Toit, Kim Fredericks, Jurgen Kriel, Prof Craig Kinnear, Naomi Okugbeni, Dr Tando Maduna, Kyra Waso, Tamryn Barron, Sinnead Cogill, Demi Pylman, and Nsuku Nkuna.

Participating artists are Gerald Choga, Portia Mphangwa, Nomsa Mukwira, Zacharia Mukwira, Simon Shumi and Zingisa Vula.

science meets art group pic.png

At the launch of the 'Science meets Art' exhibition at the Rupert Museum in October 2020, from left to right, Nicola Heathcote, Kim Fredericks, Jurgen Kriel, Dr Tando Maduna, Prof Ben Loos, Elizabeth Miller-Vermeulen, artists Zacharia and Nomsa Mukwira, Tamryn Barron, Demi Pylman, Sinnead Cogill, Naomi Okugbeni, Dr Caroline Beltran, Prof Elmarie Costandius, Nsuku Nkuna and Robyn-Leigh Cedras-Tobin (director of the Rupert Museum). Photo: Tatum Cogan