In Ebola Hot Zone, Art Exhibition Offers Hope

"Through the arts, Ebola will not kill our spirits," says one participant.

A resident walks past a mural about the dangers of the Ebola Virus painted on a wall off Tubman Boulevard in Monrovia Photo: Morgana Wingard, courtesy United Nations Development Programme

In the ongoing fight against the ebola outbreak that has crippled much of West Africa over the past months, Liberia showed signs of modest progress in containing the virus this week. New infections are down and many beds in treatment centers both in the capital of Monrovia and elsewhere are empty for the first time in weeks. Health officials are cautious in their optimism about what these factors will mean in the long term for the country, but one arts group has seized the moment to help raise spirits among a battered population.

As Arts Hub first reported, the Shabuta Cultural Arts organization has launched plans to resurrect a national arts exhibition that was put on hold due to the ebola outbreak. The group’s organizers, Maisha “Mama” Shabu and her partner Oma El “Baba” Shabu, are planning to open the exhibition in December.

They traveled from their home in Liberia’s central forest region to the capital, Monrovia, this week to reinvigorate the artistic community and gain backing for the show. “We are delighted with the huge shift in attitude and renewed support,” Mama told Arts Hub. “All the artists are enthusiastic and ready to go.”

Called the “Recovery Exhibition” the duo hopes that they can inspire Liberians of all orders to join back together and start the healing process. “Ebola means disconnection and isolation,” they wrote in a story for the Liberian Observer. “How we miss embracing our friends and distant loved ones in this time of ‘Don’t touch. Stay away from gatherings.’ Can we only communicate via phone? No!”

The Early Stages of Recovery

For some in the public health community that might sound like tempting fate for a country still very much in the early stages of recovery from the ebola outbreak and one still surrounded by other nations whose new infections are on the rise. As the World Health Organization’s Dr. Bruce Aylward told the New York Times: “I am terrified that the information will be misinterpreted and people will start to think, ‘Oh, great, this is under control.’ That’s like saying your pet tiger is under control. This is a very, very dangerous disease.” He says that even the slightest missteps in protocol could cause the ebola virus to come back on an even larger scale than before this initial improvement.

However, many Liberians have joined in Shabuta Cultural Arts’ call to renew artistic exchange in hopes of raising their country back up from the grips of the outbreak. As one musician involved in the exhibition told Arts Hub: “Through the arts, Ebola will not kill our spirits.”

Mama and Baba echo the sentiment. “Our artists can remind us of the comfort of Unity when isolation fills us with loneliness,” they write in the Liberian Observer. “Let our visual artists make us fall in love with ourselves again. We need to connect with the beauty and strength of our land and culture.”

The pair have also cautioned Arts Hub that their region has largely been spared from the ebola outbreak and that members of the community have been closely following public health protocols put in place.

As one supporter of Shabuta Cultural Arts, Nancy Obi, told Arts Hub, physically seeing the exhibition may not even be as important as simply knowing that it is happening in spite of all the suffering their country has faced. “That is why you should go ahead and have this ‘Recovery Exhibition’ so we can experience the antithesis,” she said. “People may not even come to see it, but they may meet someone who did and be inspired by them.”

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