'The beautiful thing about Nepal is that the myths are alive and woven into the daily fabrics of life, sometimes frustratingly against the grain of science and modern progress: other times preserving tangible and intangible things more precious than development.’
(Lena Bui, Sacred Waters Artist and Project Manager)

Sacred Water was a participatory arts project, which took place in Patan, Kathmandu in 2015. The project worked with local Newar women from women’s groups within the area of Patan where the Oxford University Clinical Research Nepal (OUCRU-Nepal) conduct their community-based studies into enteric diseases such as Typhoid spread by poor water and sanitation in this rapidly urbanising area. 

Over five months women bravely stepped into the unknown, exploring and sharing their stories linked to water and health from their everyday lives, folklore and religion and found ways of expressing these in visual ways through drawing, clay and collage. Whilst the overarching theme was water and health bringing women together stimulated conversations about many other aspects of their lives as women in Nepal.

In this article the project lead, Lena Bui, reflects in an interview on her experience from the position of an artist trying to create a participatory arts project which engages both medical research and the knowledges and cultures of the reserach community. 

The Project

The project also tried to engage medical researchers in the creative process but with less success.

Just one month after the devastating earthquake had hit the country the project team came together and supported one another to bring together a final exhibition in a small gallery in the heart of old Patan to display the women’s work.

The project was led by the Vietnamese visual artist Lena Bui, supported by two local artists, Bidhata K.C and Mahima Singh. 

Caption: All those involved in delivering the project share their perspectives. 

The Interview

Two years after the project ended I spoke with Lena who shared some candid insights into what it is like to manage such an artists-led project in collaboration with various medical research and community groups. 

Q: Can you describe the project and what it was trying to do?
The project was trying to work with people who live in the area where OUCRU Nepal conduct their research. The overarching concern was health and then with a slight focus on water because this is such a big concern in this part of Nepal. And then trying to bring together stories from locals who live in the area and also stories the perceptions of scientists who study the water and bringing all those perspectives and stories into one space.

The project was really providing a platform for people to voice their thoughts comfortably.

Q: Why do you think that was needed?
Well a lot of times people go straight for an education approach. They think, “Oh, we need to educate people. We need to get them to behave in a certain way and do things a certain way” But then they don’t really take into account the perspectives of the community they want to change so sometimes you don’t arrive at a meeting point because you don’t really know or respect each other’s world order or point of view. So before enacting this change it’s really important to discuss and understand where each side is coming from so this project is at that stage. Not at the stage of giving people a solution or fixed advice. There was none of that which is often the end result people want in a project.

Q-What drove you personally to do this?
I met Dr Abhilasha Karkey from OUCRU-Nepal when she visited Vietnam and heard about her research and it chimed with my own interest in the values of culture and changes in our lives. She told me about the ancient water system and ornate spouts in Patan which were fascinating. So it came from curiosity and wanting to know more about this place and all the connections. It’s both very local but at the same time it’s also very relatable to other places.

The project grew organically. It was this one good connection and it grew from there.

Caption: Clay sculpture of participant Dream project in Nepal.

Q: What were some of the challenges that you faced as an artist? 
Getting the researchers involved was not easy or getting them to feel that they could own the project. It was literally the first public engagement project of the unit and people perhaps saw it as someone else coming in and trying to do it and giving them extra work and making them do all these extra activities that they don’t see a purpose in because it wasn’t giving out solutions or that kind of thing. So that was a challenge. That is probably something that requires time.

Maybe it’s a question of having an outsider come in. Perhaps it would make more sense if the lead artist was local but then again if there is not a specialist in the field that you can hire then perhaps it does justify an outsider coming in and perhaps it is something that people can learn from and build on.

I do think that it is a shame that I was only there for a year. If there were someone there for longer then maybe it would have been better. This was the first project though so even if it was a success there wasn’t immediate funding to continue it and pass it on to someone else to keep going and so the momentum stops as well. The relationship with funding is tricky because it lasts for a limited amount of time for one project especially if it’s something new.

Another thing is that when it’s not an artist doing the work or someone with enough confidence going into a research unit then the work reverts to a very didactic format or message communication. Its tricky, because if its someone too abstract or removed, its not effective either but if the funding is controlled by the research unit then a lot of times it becomes just communications.

Also, people don’t understand the amount of time or effort that is needed for creative work so they are not willing to spend the money to get something of better quality, even if they have the funding they think oh why is it so much we could pay less but then you have something of low quality which wouldn’t last after the event. It wouldn’t be useable anymore.

Q-I guess that quality is not only in what you produce but also in how you work and the relationships that you are working with and the time you can put into them?

Q- For a lone artist it must be difficult to be working alongside an institution with its responsibilities and processes especially when you are there and pushing for something different from them. What would you advice someone like you or yourself if you were going to do this again?
If you have enough experience working with an institution then you perhaps know how to maintain your stance whilst also being respectful and mindful of other’s point of view as well. Maybe it is just being respectful with everyone that you work with but still having confidence in your approach as an artist and maintaining it.

Q-What do you think people got from the project?
I think that the women participants definitely found it fun and engaging to be part of art activities and they developed a sense of confidence. They created something that exceeded their expectation in a way. I think that also surprised the researchers because they also weren’t sure of what we were doing and then when they saw all the work and stories that came out then that was something that interested them too.

It was hard to get researchers to give the time. Maybe the printed booklet will help researchers be more inspired to do something like a collage, something colourful because then they will have an example of what it could be. 

Caption: Participant Collage

Q-Would you try and work with scientists as creators again?
I think that a lot of scientists are very creative and I would love to given the opportunity, it would be very interesting. So far I have had the opportunity to work with scientists because the Engagement director of the Oxford Clinical Research Unit in Vietnam (Dr Mary Chambers) is also a creative person who values this and supports it within the institution. She has really helped enable me to do what I want. If it was with someone with less confidence in an artist it would have been much harder to do anything. There would have been more questioning and maybe more control. I think that I was really fortunate that there was this good connection and support.

There are all sorts of people in every field and it’s about finding the right person who is as enthusiastic as you in trying something new and experimenting too. For example, for Sacred Water, Dr. Abhilasha (a researcher at OUCRU-Nepal) is also a very creative person so she was very supportive of the idea. Then having someone else who has a foot in both camps on your team is also extremely helpful, in my case I was very fortunate to have a lot of help from start to finish from Siân Aggett who is familiar with both science and the arts, and much more of a public engagement specialist than I've ever been.

So I think with your key collaborator you have to have a good connection and trust in each other in order to work well but that doesn’t mean everybody involved has to have that interest or be familiar with the arts approach already.

It’s also interesting to work with people who think very differently. I’m curious in how people think like those who are more scientific minded and less abstract in their thinking. Working with them is not a problem. Perhaps what you need most is a willingness to listen to what people have to say and a genuine interest in what they say.

Q: Why Art? Say someone reading this has not thought about working with art or had only thought of art as a way of  illustrating science, What would you say the value of working with art is?
There are so many different definitions about what art can be and I think perhaps in science there are different definitions as well. But for me I think that art just means being really free to be curious and to articulate in whatever form suits you. That’s something that is amazing about art. You can use the actual science to articulate your ideas and you can mix whatever form works for you and there is such a variety and so much freedom with how you can investigate a certain idea or try to understand something. It's great! It's very liberating. 

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