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Using Art to Raise Awareness About Vaccinations

The Art Of Saving A Life curates dozens of works concerning vaccinations

The question "What is art?" is over. But ask "What good is art?" and the conversation quickly gets more interesting. As a tool to raise awareness, it can be powerful, and this is the goal behind The Art Of Saving A Life, a project commissioned by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. It's a collection of nearly 40 world-renowned artists from a wide range of mediums, all focused on the topic of getting people vaccinated for various diseases.

Over a decade ago, Christine McNab, a journalist and international health worker, accompanied photographer Sebastião Salgado to war-torn Somalia to document teams bringing the polio vaccine to children in rural areas. Seeing the impact of those photographs planted a seed with her that grew for years. "All of a sudden, this health effort, that was really not known by very many people, became known to millions," she said at a recent TEDMED Talk. "And it wasn't because public health authorities told them, or because politicians told them, it was because Sebastião Salgado, through his vision, through his lens, and through his art, told them."

McNab carried the idea with her until, one day, during a walk in the park, she realized the a plethora of recognized artists from all over who would have their own experiences to share. “If we approached these artists,” she recalls to The Creators Project, “we could create a collection of artworks that would inspire new conversations and thinking about vaccines all over the world.” This eventually blossomed into The Art Of Saving A Life. As curator, she brought together dozens of works, ranging from short stories, to sculptures, to animated videos—all centered around what vaccines mean to the world and those living in it.

A Window to the Future of an HIV Vaccine, Katharine Dowson, 2014

The initial trigger for the project was the 40th anniversary of the World Health Organization’s Expanded Programme for Immunization in 2013. After about a year of development, it was launched in early 2015, timed to coincide with fundraising efforts for Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance.

While some of the work included was made beforehand, like Salgado's photos, the majority of it was commissioned specifically for the project. McNab worked with the artists selected on concept briefs, but ultimately the artists had final say on their submissions.

The result is a dynamic collection of pieces from different walks of life across the spectrum of artistic fields. There's the painstakingly staged photograph by Alexia Sinclair that recreates Edward Jenner’s smallpox discovery; a stack of laser-etched glass cubes representing a promising piece of the puzzle for a future HIV vaccine by Katharine Dowson; and Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s dark animated video, a jarring vision of the polio virus as an invading alien species.

The Girl Who Kicked the Ball, Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, 2014, Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra Pictures Pvt. Ltd.

There's also the star power of actress Mia Farrow, who shares a personal story about her family’s trouble with polio, and a semi-translucent sculpture by Olafur Eliasson. The project features music like the pop sounds of Yuna; short stories, and even GIFs. One of the stories, written by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, is a fictionalized account of Olikoye Ransome Kuti, the Health Minister of Nigeria (and brother of musician Fela Kuti). “He was revered for investing in the health of women and children in the 1980s–including vaccines; and for his honesty and integrity,” says McNab, who approached the author with the idea of a story about him.

Although it was launched a year ago, it continues to be used in the fight to save and improve human life. Photographer Fatoumata Diabaté, who contributed photos of the Ebola vaccine trials in Mali, exhibited them last month at the Ministerial Conference on Immunization in Africa. “They are authentic artworks, and as a result, they can last forever,” McNab postulates. “You can engage with them today for the first time and find meaning; and you can find new meanings if you've engaged with them dozens of times before - like a favourite book you read time and again.”

Learn more about The Art Of Saving A Life on its website

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