Chronicling our Times Through Art

Chronicling our Times Through Art

Deeply touched by the universality of our collective global experience and the historic significance of this experience in the time of COVID, Ms. Kak vowed to chronicle the events through art as they unfolded in our lives.

One hundred years. In 1920, the women’s suffrage movement culminated in a historic, hard-won right for political equality for women. In 2020, we commemorate the one-hundredth anniversary ratification of the Constitution’s 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote. Today, we take this right for granted – it is as natural as the sun that rises in the east and sets in the west.

One century. In 1918, the Spanish Influenza pandemic swept across the earth, killing over 20 million people. People were ordered to wear masks. Businesses, theaters, schools were closed. There was no cure, there was no vaccine. That was then.  A century later in 2019 and 2020, a microscopic monster raised its ugly head, strangling the earth in its suffocating embrace, swiftly sweeping across the world and killing a million people in less than a year. Like a tsunami, it has raised its monstrous head over us and just when we thought that it had crested, we are informed of a second wave that will engulf us. And that is now. History repeats itself.

Throughout the globe, the pandemic has touched us all in profound ways and our response to tackle it is intertwined inextricably with our cultural and political beliefs, our history of disparity, our health system, and our national and local leadership. Living in Washington DC as an immigrant and as an international public health specialist, I reach into my network of childhood friends and family in India and the network of clinicians and public health experts in the US and around the world.

As we share our experiences and exchange notes, I am struck by the universality of our experiences across the globe. We have developed a new lexicon and new habits in shared experiences - lock-downs, new mandate to work from home, fear of being infected, fear of gasping for breath while dying, relying on the phone and the internet for social interaction, social distancing, WhatsApp, video meetings and parties, home schooling, face-masks, hand sanitizers, soap and water, contact tracing, scientific evidence, myths and misinformation, freedom to wear masks, freedom not to wear masks, hope for vaccines, anti-vaccine, ventilators, oxygen, macho male national leadership (US, Brazil, Russia), empathetic and resilient female national leadership (New Zealand, Germany, and Taiwan)….  It did not take very long for the world to see that the US, long admired for its strength, was down on its knees with the highest death toll.  COVID19 has laid bare the inequities, the broken public health system, and the lack of national leadership that seems hell-bent on dividing the country in every possible way.

Deeply touched by the universality of our collective global experience and the historic significance of this experience in the time of COVID, I vowed to chronicle the events through art as they unfolded in our lives.  I began to paint one pandemic painting every month, striving to transform a dark theme into an uplifting one. And thus began my personal journey as the art chronicler of our times. I drew on many sources of inspiration - the national news, my friends, my family, my colleagues, and my profession in global health.

As the world became aware of the selfless and tireless sacrifice made by health providers, people expressed their gratitude in many ways – across the globe, grateful citizens sang in tribute to them, clapped their hands in thunderous applause, lit up monuments, scrawled “thank you” on neighborhood fences and pavements, honked their cars as they drove by hospitals, artists painted them with capes and personal protective equipment, and poets waxed poetic.  Sadly, many families mourned their sacrifice.

Many of these health providers are unsung heroes – women of color – serving as physicians, nurses, physician aides, and janitors. They have saved countless lives, held lonely hands with compassion, cleaned and sanitized intensive care units, and went home exhausted and fearful for their own children. As I thought about them, I came to hear about the project “Women of Color on the Frontlines” which focuses on female health workers of color who are underrepresented in the narrative of the nation’s response to COVID19. The project had put out a call to physicians of color to send their photographs and to artists to paint their portraits.

I was so deeply moved by the poignant photographs of physicians in their personal protective equipment, I knew that I couldn’t limit myself to just one portrait. I knew that my painting had to be a tribute to as many physicians as I could squeeze into one sheet of art paper, that it needed to reflect patriotism and strength, and that it would celebrate diversity. In the end, I squeezed in 15 images in a single painting and called it “Women of Color, Healing America.” In one corner is the American flag unfurling a shower of stars and stripes on Caduceus, the symbol of medicine, which keeps the coronavirus at bay.  Fifteen physicians from Asia, Africa, and Latin American countries in 15 shades of brown, celebrating strength in diversity, risking their lives every day as they went to work in their PPEs to save American lives. Unsung, exhausted, compassionate heroes of our time.

With great zeal and a self-imposed mission for 2020, I hunkered down and began to chronicle our lives during the pandemic through art. With equal zeal, I dived into my profession of global public health. And with a great sense of urgency, even before the World Health Organization and the US Center for Disease Control recommended universal face-covering, I began to sew 500 face-masks and surgical caps to give away. I wiped the dust off my trusty old sewing machine, pulled out stacks of beautiful African fabric that had piled up in my closet from my numerous travels to Africa and that seemed to have been waiting for a pandemic to be put to good use. I delighted my friends, colleagues, and health providers with these face-masks but, in truth, the pure joy of giving when death seemed so imminent in the early months of the pandemic was immeasurable.

It wasn’t very long before the colorful and exotic cotton face-masks prompted a colleague to inspire a new painting, “We the Women” to commemorate the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage, their right to vote as bright and hopeful as the rays of light shining from the torch held high by another famous woman, Lady Liberty.  At the center of the painting is my war machine – the sewing machine. Receding into the background is the outline of New York City, the epicenter of the pandemic at the time I created this painting.

The universality of the global experience inspired “One World: Alone Together” - people wearing their national flags for face-masks, hand-washing, plummeting stock-market trends, the national news, a new mandate for the workforce to stay home, and health providers going to work and asking people to stay home.  Overcoming all this is a little girl – representing joy and hope - in a rainbow dress and a rainbow mask in her hand and no longer covering her mouth.

My daughter, who is a physician, served as my muse in “Heroes Work Here” and in the “Women of Color Healing America” in which I express my gratitude to the many heroes of our time – the physicians, nurses, police officers, teachers, and postal, fedex and grocery workers.  We are excited to learn that she is pregnant and expecting her baby in December; we are acutely aware and fearful that she, like countless other physicians and nurses, puts herself at risk every day as she does her job of healing her patients. We hope that she will stay safe during her pregnancy and have a healthy baby – a beautiful new beginning.

In the midst of the pandemic, George Floyd died fighting for breath, reinvigorating the nation’s movement against racism and inspiring me to chronicle “Black Lives Matter” as part of the pandemic experience. A parade of people carrying a banner – bright and hopeful - across an urban landscape, faceless but for their legs of many colors and escorted by a sympathetic person in uniform.

As the Black Lives Matter movement galvanizes the US and the pandemic rages on, I am struck by a core theme that runs through both the racial pandemic and the coronavirus pandemic: the inability to breathe freely and voting as a powerful means of bringing about change. “Taking the knee” has emerged as a powerful sign of anguish and a peaceful protest against racism, reminiscent of Gandhian non-violence. A patient struggling to breathe in a hospital bed. Every breath counts; every vote counts.  A woman voting and, right above her, a rainbow sky expressing hope. “Your Breath Counts: Vote for Change!”

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