African Art in Public Health

African Art in Public Health

Photo Credit: Dominique Faget/AFP/Getty Images

People gather to sounds, sights, and smells that engage our senses in unique ways. We are drawn to music we’ve never heard, motion pictures we’ve never seen, and foods we’ve never tasted. Individuals who understand how to harness the power of these forms of communication have an opportunity to influence many different peoples.

Public health messaging is a valuable purpose for such gatherings. In low-resource and low-literacy communities for example, the arts provide a means for information to be portrayed with very limited funds and without written word.

There are many examples of existing projects in rural Africa where literacy rates are often low. In rural Uganda, the radio is a primary source of information for people and radio dramas portray important topics on public health. Radios are not often owned individually, rather, frequented areas attract people to blaring voices and music. Information on HIV/AIDS, water quality, malaria, food preparation, and hand cleanliness are key areas of focus for these dramas. Particularly HIV/AIDS has been a topic of continent-wide concern for decades. Zimbabwean musician Oliver Mtukudzi uses music to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS in his country. Some of his songs center around condom use and monogomy, practices which are often overlooked. In West Africa, recent public messaging campaigns have been focusing on the Ebola epidemic and the integration of the arts into such campaigns.


The Sierra Leone Refugee All Stars have adapted the historic Griot culture into contemporary skits and musical performances. These performances provide supportive and preventative information of the Ebola virus to their people. WeOwnTV, a TV/Film organization based in Sierra Leone partners with the All Stars to provide correct information about the virus through short film, video billboard, TV and radio advertising campaigns. Their work has become internationally recognized because of the current Ebola situation, which has claimed more than 7,500 lives in the region.


In the US, the University of Florida’s Center for Arts in Medicine is currently researching the use of the arts in public health messaging. In the summer of 2013, they traveled to Uganda to better understand how Ugandans use this tool. It was a wholesome trip for the group, leading them to understand multiple valuable applications of the arts in public health messaging. As mentioned before, the use of radio drama in Uganda is a major form of communication that many people both relate to and understand. Their research has brought attention from USAID, with an offer of funding that will be put towards a “train the trainer” seminar in Monrovia, Liberia this coming spring.

collaborative illustration project with 21 illustrators from around the world.

Art Against Ebola

Development of the idea is happening in many different US cities. In Philadelphia, the Porch Light Program is participating in the city’s Mural Arts Program to “de-stigmatize issues around behavioral health.” Yale Medical School is currently researching the effects of Porch Light’s initiative upon the communities and individuals they work with in Philadelphia. Furthermore, the City of Philadelphia Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual disAbility Services is investing in Porch Light. “They are literally investing dollars in work they truly believe is important…” – Sara Ansell, Porch Light Program Director.

There is a strong case for the use of artistic works and practices for public health in Africa. Most recently with the ebola epidemic we have seen a rise in interest from creatives and artists around the world to use ebola within their artwork and design. However on the ground in cities like Liberia, Sierra Leone you see corporate and government sponsored advertisements. Which begs the questions how can artists get more involved in public health messaging?

John F. Kennedy Medical Center in Monrovia, Liberia. (Zoom Dosso/AFP/Getty Images)
John F. Kennedy Medical Center in Monrovia, Liberia. (Zoom Dosso/AFP/Getty Images)

We are interested in discovering how the arts are used in the public health. If you have great examples please share with us. Tweet @afrodigitalart  with the #artforhealth or leave a comment below.


Contributed by Aaron Colverson

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