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SU/Kayamandi initiative uses art to change negative attitudes towards mental illness
Author: Corporate Communication and Marketing Division/Afdeling Korporatiewe Kommunikasie en Bemarking - Sandra Mulder
Published: 13/09/2021

In a first-of-its-kind Stellenbosch University (SU) social impact initiative, academics and artists worked together to combat the stigmatisation of those with mental illness.

Driven by Prof Ben Loos and Dr Tando Maduna (both from Physiological Sciences) as well as Prof Elmarie Costandius (Visual Arts), the project involved the creation of artworks inspired by the scientific micrographs of human brain cells generated by postgraduate SU Science students as part of their research. Kayamandi artists Gerald Choga, Portia Mphangwa, Nomsa Mukwira, Zacharia Mukwira, Simon Shumi and Zingisa Vula selected the fluorescence and electron microscopy images that appealed to them and used them as a departure point for their creations, which reflect their perceptions, emotions and experiences regarding mental illness.

The artists, SU staff and students as well as Kayamandi health workers and other community members all seek to rectify inaccuracies about mental illness that are causing negative attitudes towards those suffering from mental health conditions. With this project, they hope to alleviate stigmatisation, foster a better understanding, and improve behaviour towards people with mental illness.

It all started when Physiological Sciences students' research found that some communities were often either uninformed or misinformed about mental illness, exposing community members with mental health conditions to neglect and perceptions of being lazy or even afflicted by witchcraft. In response, Prof Costandius decided to use the medium of art to address this and involved artists from an existing project focussing on the socio-political history of the arts and documentation of material culture in historically disadvantaged areas around Stellenbosch. “So, the approach was to use visual access and visual literacy to give insight into certain stigmatised medical conditions, including depression, neurodegenerative illnesses such as Alzheimer's, and teenage suicides," explains Prof Loos.  

“The artists' comments about their experiences are most insightful," he says. “Their work provides a real window into some of the thoughts, fears and hopes associated with the specific illnesses in our immediate communities. The process brought the science micrographs to life and created an additional context to the artworks."

Adding further value to the initiative are the isiXhosa, English and Afrikaans translations of the explanatory legends accompanying each artwork. “Access to language together with the pictures was important to us, so the translations allow for a much wider reach," says Loos. Science communication is further supported by having postgraduate Science students explain the science in lay terms to visitors viewing the artworks. “The art makes it much easier to explain the scientific work behind it, and the problem we hope to address through the project," Loos adds.

The artworks have been taken up in the University's art collection and will be used for either a single, permanent exhibition or various temporary exhibitions across SU. The collection is available for in-person viewing on the first floor of the Jan Mouton Learning.

For more information, contact Profs Loos or Costandius at or respectively.