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Images of wellness and illness across time and cultures profiled in special exhibition
Gordon Parks, American, 1912–2006, Isabel Beside Sick Father, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 1961. Gelatin silver print. Museum purchase, Hugh Leander Adams, Mary Trumbull Adams, and Hugh Trumbull Adams Princeton Art Fund. The Gordon Parks Foundation.

PRINCETON, NJ.- Throughout history and across cultures, concepts of illness and healing have been given concrete form through art. States of Health: Visualizing Illness and Healing features over 80 objects from around the world, from antiquity to the present – including paintings, drawings, prints, sculptures, photographs and multimedia – that collectively illuminate the role that art plays in shaping our perceptions and experiences of illness and healing. The works of art represent and respond to pandemics and infectious disease, mental illness, the hopes and dangers associated with childbirth and the complexities of care.

Organized by Veronica White, curator of academic programs, and Laura Giles, Heather and Paul G. Haaga Jr., Class of 1970, curator of prints and drawings, the exhibition is on view exclusively at the Princeton University Art Museum from Nov. 2, 2019, through Feb. 2, 2020.

The Museum has collaborated with a diverse range of disciplines, programs and voices at Princeton – including experts in the fields of infectious diseases, disability, literature, medicine, contagion, psychology and creative writing – in order to provide multiple points of entry to the objects on view.

“With the medical humanities a growing field in the academy, States of Health afforded us an extraordinary opportunity to pose important questions about how we visualize both wellness and disease,” said James Steward, Nancy A. Nasher–David J. Haemisegger, Class of 1976, director. “By positioning objects that have likely never been in dialogue with each other before, the exhibition draws on multidisciplinary perspectives to consider health and healing today, how artists have interpreted these states over time and how they both differ and share certain characteristics across many cultures.”

States of Health is organized into four thematic groupings: “Confronting Contagion”; “States of Mind”; “Worlds of Care”; and “Birthing Narratives.” Provocative cross-cultural juxtapositions throughout the exhibition consider both broad issues and specific historical events from a visual perspective.

In “Confronting Contagion,” the two primary areas of focus are the bubonic plague and AIDS, while additional artworks speak to syphilis, cholera and typhoid fever, among other diseases. A 16th-century Italian painting of Saint Sebastian by the Master of the Greenville Tondo shows the role this early Christian martyr played as a protector against the plague, also known as the black death. A 1992 screenprint of two figures from a graphic memoir created by the artist David Wojnarowicz and the cartoonist James Romberger illustrates Wojnarowicz’s life, from his years as a homeless teenager to his struggles with AIDS.

“States of Mind” features artists’ reflections on their own mental struggles as well on the experiences of others. Utilizing different stylistic means, these works communicate inner turmoil, while inviting empathy from the viewer. Leonora Carrington’s color lithograph Crookhey Hall depicts fleeing figures and an ominous palace in the background, suggesting associations with her book Down Below (1944), a harrowing account of her experiences in an asylum, where she was subjected to convulsive shock therapy.

“Worlds of Care” juxtaposes objects used for medical treatment with others providing spiritual comfort, and places in conversation works reflecting self-care with others depicting caregiving by a doctor or other healer. Gordon Parks’s photograph Isabel Beside Sick Father, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil speaks powerfully to suffering and healing. In 1961 Life magazine sent Parks to Brazil for a story on poverty in Latin America, specifically in Rio de Janeiro’s notorious favelas, where he spent weeks documenting the lives of the Da Silva family.

The final section, “Birthing Narratives,” speaks to the hopes and perils associated with pregnancy, childbirth and the many rituals across cultures surrounding the start of human life. In Nigeria, which experiences one of the world’s highest rates of twin births, Yorb parents who lost one or both of their twins often commissioned re bej sculptures, miniature images created to house the immortal souls of children said not to have died, but to “have traveled” or “gone to market.” To care for the child’s spirit, the parents or surviving twin would ritually wash, clothe and feed the sculpture, resulting in its present worn surface.

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