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When art boosts health at Ben Uri

Mental and physical health are helped by a range of activities at the Ben Uri Art Gallery. Gloria Tessler reports.

    An art session at Ben Uri
    An art session at Ben Uri

    I can’t remember when I last saw David Glasser, Ben Uri Art Gallery chairman, so beside himself with joy and pride. He was positively beaming as he launched the gallery’s creative welfare programme, Using Art Differently last week. Armed with a collection of 1,300 art treasures including the finest examples of early 20th century Expressionism, the BU is bringing the healing qualities of art to refugees, asylum seekers and those in care homes or suffering dementia.  With 27,000 refugees now in the UK; with rising concerns about the increase in Alzheimer’s, the BU believes its own artistic and refugee background can improve and enrich mental and physical health.

    “I have not been happier than this in my 17 years in the job,” said Glasser. “We set out to be different and give Ben Uri  a unique and distinctive place in the world. How art can help inspire an ageing society, and how creatively we can care for our elderly is one of the BU’s prime concerns.”

    The majority of the gallery’s collection remains in storage. So it is both ironic and poignant that replica paintings aided by videos and discussion, can bring this hidden art to those who equally feel themselves to be the hidden of society. The Gallery provides 12 replica paintings of its great works which are shown alongside the materials and techniques  used in the artistic process. Some clearly have that emotive quality to draw out a particular response. Soutine’s haunting La Soubrette, for instance, or Bomberg’s Ghetto Theatre with its darkly prescient theme, or Marc Chagall’s controversial Christ.

    In its tiny Boundary Road Gallery in Maida Vale, north London, the BU holds regular private views often on themes, linking the Jewish community with other minorities. Visitors spill out into the streets under the smiling gaze of Glasser, who exudes bonhomie like Prosecco offered to the cognoscenti who come to view and chat.  

    As the exhibition opened  I didn’t meet any refugees or asylum seekers, but Glasser introduced the star of the night, Monty (who prefers not to publish his surname), one of the 850,000 people suffering dementia in the UK. He was diagnosed 20 years ago, but retains his keen eye and reflective manner as he describes the bridges he once designed for the elevated section of the M4.  His drawings are pinned to the upstairs gallery, featuring the concentric circles and geometric shapes which define him as a civil engineer. Monty stressed the importance of not losing ideas. “Even now I can sit down and do a design.” 

    An artwork by Monty who suffers from dementia
    An artwork by Monty who suffers from dementia

    On the question of cognitive therapy, the elegantly spoken Norman Franklyn of the Charlie Ratchford Centre in Chalk Farm, told me how he uses pottery to work with people suffering from Alzheimer’s. “ What they take from it depends on how it is done.  You can use pottery to help them to work it out for themselves.”

    Downstairs participants sit at a long table covered with a sunflower oilcloth and contribute to a giant artwork on the wall. They are encouraged to draw, write or stick an image of their choice, take part in workshops and respond to a replica on an easel.  Encouraging words stare down at them from the wall. From Degas: Art is not what you see but what you make others see, and from an owlish face, the question: Who am I

    Draw your portrait using your non-dominant hand is another wall message. `Trained facilitators discuss themes, materials and techniques with the participants. There are also ipad art classes, using 20 ipads part funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, which aid those with restricted mobility. Some of the work exhibited shows real talent. Braham Bendaoud’s Story of Greece in its stunning colours. A few incisive self-portraits. And a painting of a prison garden.

    A detail from Braham Bendaoud’s Story of Greece
    A detail from Braham Bendaoud’s Story of Greece

    The BU gave 24 sessions art therapy sessions to the Hammerson Care Home in North London, and Nightingale House in South London is next. Last year the gallery collaborated with the Islington based, professionally run New Art Studio, on its show Picturing Memories, working with a trainee art therapy student from the University of Hertfordshire. It resulted in the NAS exhibition Thirty Six Pounds Ninety Five Pence, (the amount asylum seekers receive per week).  Pictorial memories are claimed to aid cognitive ability and help asylum seekers and refugees process trauma, loss and fear and rebuild their lives. Art in a multi-lingual environment is the universal language. This collaboration resonates with the BU which started life in London’s Jewish East End in 1915, offering a safe place for Jews fleeing persecution. The gallery recently partnered Roehampton University to take the Picturing Memories programme to a dementia day centre in Camden.  

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