Mariah Lookman

In a 1946 preface by the World Health Organization, the organization defined holistic health as the state of complete mental, physical and social well-being than the absence of an illness in the physical vessel of an individual. The implementation of this preamble then identifies with the idea of the consequence or an action of the state of absolute welfare is intrinsically a connection between artistic and creative interaction and the psychological and biological symptoms of that association. The Cancerfund- Galle, an initiative by Mariah Lookman, Pakistani artist and writer is in its essence an attempt and advocacy to create a space that allows for this healing and helping process, a system that supports the well-being of individuals countering physical, mental and societal parameters due to the presence of an illness or infirmity. Stemmed from the influence and inspiration of American poet, essayist and feminist Adrienne Rich and conceived upon the premise of her passionate advocacy to create a humane world, Cancerfund-Galle is a three-part exhibition; in its first segment, the exhibition will showcase works of twenty-four artists from across the globe.  In our conversation with Mariah Lookman, we discerned the intricacies through which art and the application of it in therapeutic and healing environments becomes instrumental to both the physical and mental well-beings of individuals while exploring ways that could potentially build systems that contribute to a larger context of these implementations.

Mariah Lookman is a Pakistani artist, and writer based in Galle, Sri Lanka. She works between the studio and academia that thrives on the crossovers between making and teaching. Her research interests are art and the history of ideas with special focus on the links between the formation of scientific knowledge and the political. Mariah Lookman holds the degree Bachelors of Fine Art from the National College of Arts, Lahore, Master in Art from the Slade School of Fine Art, University College London, and Doctor of Philosophy from the Ruskin School of Art, University of Oxford. Most recently, Mariah was elected to the Board of Graduate Studies of the Graduate Program, Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, Karachi (2021). She was Academic Consultant and Senior Lecturer at the Department of Visual and Technological Arts, SVIAS, Eastern University, Sri Lanka (2017-19), awarded the Asma Jahangir Award for Cultural Contribution Towards Social Justice (2018-19), held the post Adjunct Researcher at Tate Modern (2018), and Curator, Mubarak Haveli, Lahore Biennale 01 (2017-2018). Some of her past institutional associations were with Asia Art Archive, Hong Kong (2015-16) and Sharjah Biennale (2015).

At present, Mariah is working on a monograph on Lala Rukh in collaboration with the Estate of Lala Rukh and Grey Noise, Dubai.  Her forthcoming exhibitions are for Colomboscope and Asian Art Biennale 2021. Mariah is a two-time cancer survivor - an experience that has led her to start the Cancerfund-Galle; an arts focused initiative that works in aid of the Cancer and Palliative Care Unit at T. H. Karapitiya, Galle.

Q | What does art mean to you? And in your opinion, how does art help enrich human experience?

A | When you ask an artist who has spent a lifetime working at Art Schools, what does it mean to me, I can say it means everything. I think art is important because it helps us see ourselves in ways which we may not ordinarily or readily understand or have the opportunity for. It is a platform for reflection, appreciation, and celebration of all things beautiful and complex. It is like science or mathematics as a way to express our huge and a deep sense of wonder, the mystery of why we are here, what we are doing, how things work. I think all these things are basically what art needs to be, and why it matters.

Q | What is your opinion of art enriching human experiences?

A | We can be so busy trying to do certain things which we think we are supposed to be doing. Art is a way that allows timeout to think of things slightly differently. But also, it gives one the space to imagine how things could be or are going to be. We can also think of art as a place/space that frees up the imagination. Art can make a person imagine how the world can be a better place. For all these things, we need our creative senses.

Q | What was the premise upon which you conceived 'Tonight No Poetry Will Serve'?

A | Adrienne Rich is a poet whom I have admired and read, but I have not till now actually done anything with her work in terms of curating, or making work in response to her poetry. As you may know, Adrienne Rich was an American poet. She was born in 1929, side-by-side her writing, she is well-known for her work as a radical feminist. She was also a part of the anti-war movement. She was a liberal who moved away from the hegemony of Western feminism and was deeply committed to questioning in every sense of the word. She was somebody who had the courage to stand up against the hypocrisy of the establishment, especially the US government. She was critical of the military adventures that the United States has had in many parts of the world. During her lifetime, there was Vietnam, which was a big focus, but then later on, again, the Gulf wars and the first invasion of Iraq. She was nominated for the Medal of Honor, Medal of the Arts, from the Clinton administration that she refused. In her defence she said, ‘Look, this is not what art does’ – (her response to government) - ‘you're cynical, you're practical, you make deals. My art doesn't do that.’ This is the kind of person that appeals to me. Here is someone who did not compromise on calling something as it is. This is where the ideas for the exhibition come from. The premise of the exhibition for the Cancerfund-Galle is on her poem, which she penned in response to the news on the torture of detainees at Guantanamo. I think she was quite astonished and dismayed by the media apparatus that can gloss over and make something which is just absolutely inhuman, like torture, palatable and agreeable or justifiable.

She is somebody in whom I find inspiration. I find the links between her poetry, the language and say the mechanized understanding of cancer and warfare are critically intertwined. In fact, some of the treatments for cancer are a direct result of inventions that came out of chemical warfare agents. Chemotherapy treatments are leftovers from weapons technology that have been repurposed for health.  The link between warfare and cancer is, quite deep, and at the same time, patients have this pressure - almost. If you are diagnosed with any illness for that matter, but especially cancer, you have to fight it, and if you are lucky, you are a survivor. All these words map on perfectly with military language. A patient is expected to survive this battle and the focus is on combating the disease. I think, this is where there is a problem. A very aggressive military-like approach is a fundamental problem. It does not make any sense to be pressured into this combative framework. And so, I thought of using her poetry, to say that there are things that happen or the experiences one can go through which nullify language, for which words fail. To heal and to imagine a better world, and to imagine that things can be different is a creative and poetic process. Hence the premise of the exhibition.

Q | Can you expand on the exhibition and the artists who partake, and how it all comes about?

A | As I was nearing the end of a big chunk of my treatment, I thought I wanted to do something to give back.  We are living through difficult times. I was diagnosed last year, during the first lockdown. To add to it all, there were many unknowns in terms of COVID and coping with COVID-19. And so, I decided to stay where I was. I was treated at a small hospital in Karapitiya, Galle, near where I live. And this experience, made me see things slightly differently in terms of the virtue of ‘staying put in one place’, how it is possible to make a change, no matter where one is by just having a focus. I thought to myself, how do I do give back, how do I that? Well, how does an artist give back? And so, I decided to start with an exhibition. As it happens, even though we are very fortunate in Sri Lanka that there is support, and there is the National Health Service, it is also unfortunate that all these facilities are getting eroded. My wish is to support at the National public sector level by creating a pool of money structured as a fund to assist the work at the cancer hospital in Galle. The fund can be used for emergency needs of medicines, drugs, things which are slow to come in the system. The other is to provide the means for all sorts of alternative therapeutic treatments. One may think of all these things as extra, like yoga, guided meditation, or art therapy. These alternative therapies are generally not possible out of ordinary budgets. But I firmly believe that they make a huge difference to the outcome. Constantly relying on volunteers is also not a smart move because then you are always waiting for someone to come and volunteer.

The aim of our work at Cancerfund-Galle is to create a platform to sustain these alternative and supportive treatments. This is how the idea for the exhibition came about. I felt that it was not enough to do something just once, so we shall start with a three-part exhibition over three years, and then see how it goes, learn from this experience and grow with it. The first exhibition has work of twenty-four artists from all over the world.

I am on the mission to build a team of people, including the artists. I want to get other minds onboard, and actually work on how we can change perceptions of cancer, how we live with it, how we can prevent it. We are also interested in working on crossovers with environmental projects - particularly projects that focus on conservation as environmental degradation is a huge cause of cancer. On a practical level, how do we deal with plastic pollutants or air pollutants that are good examples of all kinds of substances that we find it hard to cope with in our bodies. There is also the stress, and the general stress that is caused by degradation of the natural world and habitat. It made sense being where we are in Sri Lanka, to connect and join up with the various ecological practices that can feed into cancer research, awareness building, prevention, and long-term wellness.

Q | Considering geography and culture, what is the selection criteria for the artist you've chosen to partake in the exhibition?

A | I thought I would go with what is close to me.  I choose artists who I have worked with over the past couple of decades. There are those I have been friends with, some are my former students, some colleagues, some are my teachers - the selection of artists is definitely intergenerational. I talked to people whose work I loved. It has been a gathering like that.  I have been lucky. All the artists have been really generous and productive. People have given more than I expected, a lot of artists have done new work.

Secretly, I think I want to also change how we think of an exhibition which is a fundraiser for a purpose. It is not about a sorry situation because of the way cancer is - cancer can destroy lives. At one level, cancer affects people in ways which differ. But again, at another level, they are life-changing. With this thought I decided let’s open it up to artists outside Sri Lanka and invite them to join up with us and respond to this call to action. The artists have said, yes. I think one of the reasons they do so is because work on prevention is something that is a global need. It is a global concern.

At the moment I am trying to pay as much attention as possible to the setup process. So that if anyone else anywhere in Sri Lanka or the world would like to use this model and take it up, they can.

Q| To what extent do you think art helps in the process of healing?

A| Getting back to the premise of the exhibition , if you just think of the title of the poem Tonight No Poetry Will Serve, these are after all just words, but these words have meanings that extend beyond the literal words to touch the heart and the intellect. I believe, the arts can definitely help with healing. Our idea of art therapy is to offer nonverbal means for expression and communication that does not have to rely on verbal language. It is not uncommon for cancer patients to suffer from low self-esteem caused by the kinds of treatments. Or one might feel isolated, scared and even lonely. In these instances, making art, such as drawing for example becomes therapeutic.

We are at present working on a pilot project with Shyamala School of Art to do with art therapy at the Hospital- the Oncology and the Palliative Care Unit at Karapitiya. Our aim is to bring together doctors and nurses and patients. Our target is to meet at least once a month. The way it works is everybody sits together and draws. We are testing how this could become regularized, and structured in way that makes it easy for the nurses or the doctors to initiate art therapy sessions on need basis or be based on the needs of a specific patient.

We need to recognise that the patients have family, who are there to support. But again, sometimes people who play the supportive role also require support. Here as well, sitting and drawing or making things can bring people together. These activities help to cope and to express anxieties, fears. In this way art becomes a bridge that helps you talk about what it is that really matters and what is troubling.

Deploying 'Tonight No Poetry Will Serve', an emphatic line derived from poet Adrienne Rich's poem, Mariah Lookman, through Cancerfund-Galle, will seek to utilize art as a vehicle to support a society in the mission to eradicate an illness that drains the soul and, in this initiative, to heal both the heart and mind. Our conversation with artist and writer Mariah Lookman explores the mediums through which one can heal through art; the Cancerfund-Galle becomes that which bridges the gap between art, an inherent medium of survival and the complete welfare of an individual. Through this initiative and the collaboration and contribution of artists as well as the Oncology and Palliative Care Unit, people will persevere through creative and artistic ways in combatting psychological, mental and societal susceptibilities.

18th June, 2021 Visual Art | Paintings