COVID-19: An Artist’s Lockdown Diary

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Yinka Olatunbosun reports on how a Nigerian visual artist and a trailblazer in Arts in Medicine who currently resides in the United States of America for a fellowship, Kunle Adewale, is working with a positive attitude in the face of the mandatory lockdown, away from his family in Nigeria

Before Nigeria’s confirmed cases of persons infected with COVID-19 soared from units to tens, many developed countries of the world had been battling with the deadly outbreak while adopting partial and full lockdown in major cities or across the entire country. Within the past week, over 20 artevents and exhibitions were cancelled or postponed indefinitely in Lagos alone.

The United States of America which is fast becoming the epicentre of the COVID-19 outbreak has recorded complete shutdown of museums and galleries, cinemas and theatres and that had been replicated in many countries of the world in compliance with the global advisory issued by the World Health Organisation regarding social distancing. Even the dynamics of art reporting had changed from event-based to human interests.

To inspire other artists and Nigerians in general, Kunle Adewaleshared his personal account of how the lockdown has impacted on his work and life as an Atlantic Fellow of Equity in Brain Health at Global Brain Health Institute, University of California, San Francisco. Adewale is a development practitioner, an artist by profession and a graduate of Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife Nigeria with specialisation in Painting and Art History.

He studied Civic Leadership from Tulane University New Orleans (USA), Arts in Health for Helping Professionals, Charlotte (USA) and Arts in Medicine at the Arts in Health Research Intensive from University of Florida (USA). Kunle is a certified artist in Understanding Arts and Dementia (University College London, UK) and in Medicine and The Arts (University of Cape Town, South Africa).

He told THISDAY Art Weekend how COVID-19 became more real to him as a state of emergency was declared in San Francisco.

“People were rushing to buy foodstuff, toiletries, grocery stores were being emptied within a short time. Local and international flights were cancelled. A total shutdown of every religious and social gathering, schools were closed, restaurants and other bars were not spared either. It seems everything was cancelled social distancing became the order of the day. The feeling was like some one experiencing an Apocalypse. Apart from China and Italy, United States is the third country in the world with astronomical number of cases of COVID-19 ,” he said.

He said that having a positive disposition is the best way to cope with the lockdown. He believed that this is one of the most interesting times to be alive and that in spite of the scary news, there is hope for humanity.

“In the midst of it all I choose peace over panic, faith over fear because I believe this is not a permanent challenge, it shall be over soonest. United States of America is doing their best to bring everything under control. Kudos the healthcare workers who puts their lives out there to save affected persons. They are the real heroes. Everything seems like a sci-fi movie,” he said.

All Atlantic Fellows for Equity in Brain Health are provided with innovative training in brain health, leadership, and dementia prevention to a broad array of promising leaders from various professions, including medicine, science, business, law, journalism, social science, and the arts.

Through their works, thefellows are expected to emphasise local and global health inequities that need to be addressed by practitioners and policymakers, with the goal of transforming local communities around the world. Adewale emphasised the need for social distancing as one of the most effective ways of preventing the spread of the virus.

“While observing social distancing, we are connected regularly via zoom for classes and meetings. It’s been interesting but challenging because of the physical human connection and experience but this is best decision for now. I’m also working on my solo art exhibition here in the United States, openingreception date is April 30. I’m not seeing the possibility of that event, so we will shift the date till everything is fine. In the meantime, I have been putting finish touches to my work, working on the catalogue too among many others,” he revealed.

With over a decade of experience as an artist and educationist, Adewale founded ‘Tender Arts Nigeria’ in 2013, a social enterprise and non-profit organisation which aims to positively impact children, youth and adults, with a focus on therapeutic arts, arteducation, talent development, community development and civic engagement.

Projects that Adewale facilitated in the past and present range from therapeutic art projects for displaced families suffering from post-traumatic stress disorders, to children and adults living with cancer, sickle cell anemia, dementia, mental illnesses, HIV and Aids, Down syndrome, Cerebral palsy, autism or other neurological disorders.

Despite being separated from his family in this perilous period, he has been encouraged by their cheerful attitude whenever he called.

“I constantly connect and check in with my family on a regular basis. The smiles on my son’s face and his joyful sound give me so much happiness and the encouragement from my wife is so therapeutic. We are very calm, praying and hopeful that the pandemic will end soon,” he said.

However, he pointed out that it is important for the world to unite across racial differences to fight another great threat to life which is hate. Hate is the reason why people stigmatise others.

“This time is for more empathy, spreading message of hope, inspiring courage and resilience. This is the time to stand together and not be divided or play blame game. If you can’t offer succour or support in times like this, just stay silent and don’t spread hate,” he said.

Adewale said artists should take advantage of this period to use their works to pass messages of hope and encouragement. Recently, the popular American singer-songwriter, John Legend shared a video of his e-concert for fans to cheer them up. Adewale said such artistic gestures could go a long way to help people develop the right mental disposition.

“Arts can be a tool for emotional and social wellbeing of people, artist create works that reflect these. They can also create a virtual therapeutic art session for people while we still practicing social distancing. Just like healthcare workers who are busy day and night because of COVID-19 I think as creative people our role is to compliment the works of these healthcare practitioners. Hope for humanity lies on our collective efforts,” he said.

He has impacted over 15,000 beneficiaries through his art programs in Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, South Africa and USA. He currently leads the largest Arts in Health Network on the continent of Africa through the ‘Arts in Medicine Fellowship for Students and Professionals in Arts and Health’, located in Nigeria. He has featured as a panelist and keynote speaker at Arts in Health-related conferences in Nigeria and abroad. His development works has featured on Aljazeera, Reuters, BBC Africa, TRT World and Africa 54 Voice of America Washington DC among many others.

His community-based projects have been supported by U.S Department of State, Center for Arts in Medicine, University of Florida, U.S Consulate Lagos, and endorsed by International Child Arts Foundation, Washington D.C, United Nation Information Center, Society of Nigerian Artists, Nigerian Medical Association, Lagos State Council for Arts and Culture, Lagos State Ministry of Sports Youth and Social Development.

In 2014, Kunle was nominated for Global Teacher Prize by the Varkeys Foundation (UK). In August 2015, Kunle had the honor of meeting United States President, Barack Obama through the Mandela Washington Fellowship Award for Young African Leaders. He has also been specially recognised by National Museum of African Arts, Smithsonian Institution Washington DC and The ArtsCouncil of New Orleans.

He is an international advocate for persons living with cancer and sickle cell anemia, and a vast member of ArtTherapy Without Borders, Inc. He was Nigeria’s recipient of the 2016 Commonwealth Youth Worker Award (UK) and has been nominated for JCI Ten Outstanding Young Persons of Nigeria in 2018.

He is currently the Nigerian representative for Arts in Health Early Career Research Network (UK) and was recently shortlisted by the World Bank as one of the 68 Social Inclusion Heroes. This year, as a result of Kunle’s impacts in the field of arts in health globally, August 2 was proclaimed by the Mayor of Cincinnati (USA) as the official ‘Kunle Adewale Day’.