In Burma, Art to Heal Old Wounds

By Dani Patteran 8 June 2013

RANGOON—Under the high vaulted ceilings of a nursing home in Rangoon, there are shrieks of laughter and bursts of applause as people rush to pass a ball between teams as part of a rowdy competition. Earlier in the day, this group of 60 or so elderly men and women waggled their toes and threw some impressive moves to Aretha Franklin’s tunes as part of a sitting “chair dance.”

Even the really sick, deaf or partially blind took part—helped by their friends or one of the nuns working at the home.

Noel, one resident from Rangoon, puts it quite simply: “We feel very happy.”

This is the Myanmar Art Social Project (MASC), a new initiative set up by a Colombian actor and an Italian art therapist, with the support of a Danish psychologist and a network of local Burmese artists and volunteers.

The aim, they explain, is to use “art as a tool for expression,” combining theater and visual arts techniques with a therapeutic framework to help participants work through difficult issues and build personal resilience.

MASC focuses its work on vulnerable people and has worked with street children and the elderly at workshops such as the one at the Sisters of Reparation Home for the Aged Poor.

The project draws on the unique strengths of its founders. Trained as a classical actor, Carlos Ossa worked as an actor, producer and director in Colombia for 12 years and has run theater workshops with groups as diverse as beauty queens and children living in conflict.

His technical experience in the performing arts is paired with Cinzia Rigodanzo’s knowledge of psychosocial support. She is a trained art therapist and has worked for the International Committee of the Red Cross in humanitarian emergencies for six years.

“When we met, we realized we could combine our knowledge,” says Rigodanzo. “Carlos has the art and theater skills, and I have experience using art as a tool and for therapy.”

By using mostly games, drama techniques and visual arts such as drawing or painting, MASC gives people the freedom to act out or express feelings and experiences without having to talk about them in detail.

It is a powerful approach. Rigodanzo describes using “body sculptures” to help children express and work through their emotions at a recent series of workshops with street children in Rangoon.

“I started and was expressing pain and sadness,” she says. “One girl had to transform us—but instead of physically moving us [into happier poses], she started healing us with her hands.”

“This was really something strong,” she adds. “It was clear how she interpreted the exercise—she really understood that in order to transform [my sadness], she had to first heal.”

Many of these children come from backgrounds of extreme poverty. Their future is uncertain, yet the feedback from the workshop was clear: “I will never forget this experience; I could feel a lot of happiness. I feel more aware now than before,” said one participant.

MASC also incorporates a strong peace-building element into its work. At a time when inter-communal tensions in Burma are spilling over into sectarian violence, and the peace process in ethnic states is under way, peace-building is a popular buzzword.

But this is quite different from ceasefire monitoring or political settlements.

“For three generations we are living in conflict,” says Ossa, of his life in Colombia. “I was born in the conflict, my mother was born in the conflict, my grandfather was born in the conflict, and now my son, too.”

In Burma as much as Colombia, “the one thing in common is our resilience. In the middle of conflict, people find the space to live,” he says.

It is this space that MASC seeks to nurture. By working at a grassroots level, in particular with Burma’s younger generation, the group aims to transform violence or anger through creativity. “Because art is creation, not destruction,” Ossa says.

It is not easy. There is little experience of using art or theater as a social tool in Burma, and very few art therapists. For this reason, one of MASC’s goals is to build a network of local volunteers and artists, and to help with training and skills exchange. This, Ossa and Rigodanzo explain, also allows them to connect with the local culture and learn traditional art forms and social work.

For Sister Lina, a nun at the Sisters of Reparation nursing home, the benefit of these workshops for the residents is clear: “This is very important. This is the last life moment for them… If we don’t have these activities, they will be lonely,” she says.

Back at the workshop, there is a quiet moment between activities, and a microphone is passed around the group. Suddenly, a haunting voice echoes around the room, singing an old English melody with all the power of a professional singer.

The old man doesn’t explain how he learned to sing with such finesse. But given the freedom to express himself, the tools to do so and an audience keen to listen, he certainly found his voice.

As Ossa says, “Art is for the humanity—it is space to open your soul.”