Social and health psychologist, Prof. Ama de-Graft Aikins has argued that the arts should not be seen as an added feature to health communication but rather as a core feature because they effectively tap into imagination, memory, emotions, thinking and sociality.
According to her, art forms like comedy, music, dance and visual arts are useful mediums for public understanding of health issues but we must also pay attention to unintended consequences of using the arts since some of them are sometimes either simplistic, misguided or harmful and could undermine sustained behaviour modification or transformation in the long run.
Prof Ama de-Graft Aikins made the observations while delivering her Inaugural Lecture as a fellow of the Ghana Academy of Arts and Sciences (GAAS) at the GAAS Auditorium in Accra. Her topic was ‘Laughing, Singing, Dancing for Health: Creative Arts and the Science of Health Communication in Ghana.’
Prof de-Graft Aikins is a British Academy Global Professor at the Institute of Advanced Studies, University College London. She received her PhD in Social Psychology from the London School of Economics and Political Science and completed postdoctoral training at the University of Cambridge.
She became the first female full professor of psychology at the University of Ghana in 2015. She was inducted as a fellow of the Ghana Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2016.
Prof de-Graft Aikins made reference to a satirical video about Covid-19 by comedian Clemento Suarez which went out in March last year when partial lockdown was imposed on Ghana. She said over the last year and a half of the pandemic, several other Ghanaians of different artistic persuasions have joined Suarez in tracking Covid-19’s complex facets and in the process have educated Ghanaians at home and abroad about the disease.
She categorized those efforts as “Covid arts” and used it as backdrop to make a case for the central role of creative arts in communicating Ghana’s complex health problems and developing stronger health systems for the nation.
Prof de-Graft Aikins pointed out that the arts, apart from serving multiple cultural functions in Ghanaian socio-cultural life, have also for many years served an important function in our healing traditions and are woven into diagnostic practices, treatment regimes and even the aesthetics of the healing environment.
Touching on why the arts are incorporated into our healing traditions, Prof. de-Graft Aikins said much of healing is art involving the unconventional. She explained that with a quote from Nigerian writer, Chinua Achebe: “The motivation that first led man to make art was the need to afford himself through his imagination, an alternative handle on reality.”
She said even before this nation became independent in 1957, colonial medical approaches to health education were built on the creative, indigenous healing traditions which incorporated theatre, singing and dancing.
According to her, global scientifically- conducted research show that music reduces levels of anxiety, depression and epileptic seizures; dance aids the healing process for trauma and psychotic illness; visual arts facilitate emotional expression and can be effective for Alzheimer’s care and stroke recovery while comedy can be used as an effective tool to reduce disease-related stigma such as mental illness and HIV/AIDS.
She observed that an important lesson discussed by global health experts about the last 14 months was that we must use Covid-19 as a catalyst to reimagine and restructure healthcare and social protection systems in ways that endure beyond the pandemic.
Referring to the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic which killed over 100,000 people in Gold Coast, Asante and the Northern Territories (what is present-day Ghana), Prof. Ama de-Graft Aikins said there had been strategic inaction of people in power to health matters and some of the socio-economic conditions which existed during the Spanish flu pandemic, were still with us.
“We need to focus on collective action to tackle obstacles to health; we need to develop relevant health-related social policy at all the levels; we should also try and channel the spirit in the traditional arts that challenges authority and sacred institutions, the artistic imagination that compels and transforms,” she added.
The lecture, which was chaired by Prof. Kofi Opoku Nti, Vice-President of the Arts Section of GAAS, was sponsored by the Regional Institute for Population Studies, University of Ghana, the British Academy, Nubuke Foundation, DigiBooks Ghana Ltd and The African Regent Hotel.
The recorded lecture can be accessed at https://web.facebook.com/gaasghana/videos/137293271793469