Twinning Art & Health in Bulawayo

Three local creative professionals recently visited Aberdeen’s most far-flung twin city, Bulawayo in Zimbabwe, as part of an arts in health project.

Sue Fairburn of Gray’s School of Art, Sally Thomson of Grampian Hospitals Art Trust, and local writer Dr Shane Strachan, visited the city between the 12th and 18th of November to work with a team of artists and maternal health experts to facilitate a creative exchange between arts and health organisations in Bulawayo with the collective goal to enhance maternal health environments.

twinning-art-health-in-bulawayo-1The project was initiated as a follow up to a play project Dr Strachan was commissioned to write by Immpact, a global maternal health research initiative based at the University of Aberdeen. The play, ‘A Mother’s Journey’, was performed at the 2015 May Festival and attended by two matrons from Bulawayan maternity hospitals. One of the matrons, Dr Davidzoyashe Makosa of United Bulawayo Hospitals, was impressed by the art work on display in Aberdeen Royal Infirmary, and commented on her own efforts to enhance the maternity wards she worked in with visual art. During an exchange visit with Impact in September 2015, Dr Strachan witnessed the beginnings of Dr Makosa’s artistic enhancement in the Lady Rodwell labour ward and also met with the Mayor of Bulawayo. He recollects that, “the Mayor was very interested in a potential arts project and felt it would be of much benefit to the hospitals, particularly in maternal health buildings, which are often the last to be renovated and repaired.”


On this recent return visit, Dr Strachan asked Sue Fairburn to join him due to her previous work with Impact and her expertise on design in maternal health environments, and Sally Thomson, who is the Director of GHAT, an organisation which has provided art in North East hospitals for over 30 years. Throughout their week in Bulawayo, they were hosted by Clifford Zulu of the National Gallery of Zimbabwe, and met with arts and health organisations to identify areas of need within Mpilo Hospital and United Bulawayo Hospitals, before facilitating a creative demonstration by Bulawayo-based artists in the public-gathering areas of the maternity hospitals. This involved the artists creating new paintings and chalk drawings, as well as inviting staff and patients to have a go at creating their own work with clay and coloured vinyl cuttings.

“The project exceeded all of our expectations thanks to the overwhelming engagement from Clifford and the expertise of the local artists.

Ms Thomson commented, “The project exceeded all of our expectations thanks to the overwhelming engagement from Clifford and the expertise of the local artists. We initially thought that we would only get as far as discussing a potential arts project with the hospitals within the week, so it was fantastic to actually be able to bring a participatory art experience directly to them, which garnered a highly positive response from all involved. ”


The group were particularly pleased to brighten up the Youth Friendly Unit at United Bulawayo Hospitals which is composed of grey cabins tucked away behind the main maternity buildings. Hospital staff expressed concerns that the location and appearance of the unit was discouraging young people from visiting them for sexual health advice and counselling services. In order to counteract this, all six of the local artists and hospital staff worked together to create a colourful artwork on the side of one of the cabins using vinyl cut-outs. Ms Fairburn stated that “This was the real highlight of the trip, seeing the artists and hospital staff come together to make a difference to the environment in real time through hands-on creative engagement – the youth and the community will immediately see this work and that’s what the project is about. The staff have held on to the remaining vinyl and will be encouraging youth users of the service to cut out their own shape and add it to the artwork so that it continues to grow and enhance the environment over time. It’s like participatory graffiti. ”


As a result of their visit, Clifford Zulu and the artists have created a new arts in health collective called #Buka, an Ndebele word which means ‘look at’; they will continue to engage with hospitals in Bulawayo, while the Aberdeen group hope to support their Bulawayan partners by seeking funding opportunities to expand the art programme further into the wards and buildings of the maternity hospitals, encouraging the positive experience of these often under-sung and under-funded spaces which primarily focus on the needs of women. Dr Strachan added, “The British Council in Zimbabwe visited us during the sessions in the hospitals and spoke very highly of the impact that was being made, which has really given us the confidence and backing to continue this work and seek further opportunities to make a difference in Bulawayo. We are very grateful to Aberdeen City Council’s Twin City Project Funding for providing the resources to establish these links with Bulawayo in the first place.”


Bulwayo-Based artists: Owen Maseko, George Masarira, Talent Kapadza, Charles Bheb, Danisile Ncube, and Omega

In addition to the hospital sessions, the Aberdeen group also visited the Department of Applied Art and Design at the Bulawayo Polytechnic and the Mzilikazi Art and Craft Centre which are both key to developing and supporting local creative education. Ms Fairburn commented that “there is a real opportunity to look at how the local creative education facilities can work with the hospitals – both hospitals are only blocks from where students are learning the basics of art and design – imagine if they could see their efforts make a difference to the wider community. That’s something that Aberdeen is working towards as well.”

To see more images of the artists at work in the hospital environment and how the project develops from hereon, search for #BukaMpilo and #BukaCentral on social media sites.

Editor’s Notes

  • Bulawayo is one of five cities which Aberdeen is twinned with. It is the only non-European twinning partnership.
  • Grampian Hospitals Art Trust (GHAT) was initiated in 1985 by consultant doctors in Aberdeen Royal Infirmary, collaborating with artists and lecturers of Gray’s School of Art. Over the intervening years the trust has become a national leader in arts and health programmes. From the early years of pulling together a collection of artwork (which now consists of 4300 works)to hang in the hospital spaces of the North East, GHAT has developed new strands of work for the patients, staff and visitors. These include public art and design in new buildings, artists working with the patients in clinical units such as Roxburghe House, and theSuttie Arts Spacewhich isthe only bespoke art gallery in a hospital in Britain. This work also adds to the cultural economy of the North East by employing artists and supporting graduates as they embark on their new career path.
  • Shane Strachan holds a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Aberdeen. His work has been published in a variety of national magazines and anthologies, and he has also had work staged within Aberdeen, including The National Theatre of Scotland’s recent Granite
  • Sue Fairburn is a Lecturer/Researcher in Design Futures at Gray’s School of Art with a background in design and health. Prior to joining Gray’s,she worked in Knowledge Management with Immpact, looking at how to ensure their research was taken up through traditional science and health routes, as well as through advocacy and cultural engagement.

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