Healing People Through the Visual Arts

Healing People Through the Visual Arts

Kunle Adewale is visual artist and art educator. He studied Painting and General Arts at the Auchi Polytechnic and fine and applied art at the Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife specialising in painting and art history. In 2015, he studied civic leadership at the Tulane University, New Orleans, United States.With over a decade experience as an artist and educationist, he founded Tender Arts Nigeria in 2013. This non-profit making organisation positively impacts children and youth with a focus on art therapy and education, talent and community development, as well as civic engagement. Adewale has over 5,000 beneficiaries through his art programmes in three years. He has also facilitated projects for children and young adults in Nigeria like Young Persons with Autism , Children Living with Cancer Foundation and Children with Down Syndrome.

Kunle Adewale also pioneered Arts in Medicine Africa and the First Art Therapy Centre in West Africa.Through this programme, he is also helping people living with sickle cell anaemia in Nigeria. They are able to get their minds off pain and feelings of ill health, reduce depression and anxiety while strengthening their personal and social identity. The art therapy sessions give them a sense of fulfilment and hope for the future.

What drew you to the study of the fine arts, and was there any reason for specialising in painting?

When I was much younger, I was a bit confused about what career to pursue. At a time in secondary school, I was in the science class till when I realised that I was always failing science subjects. I made a U-turn and went to the art class where I recorded success. I was still unsure about my course of study at the tertiary level; mass communication and law came to mind. However, my passion and attraction for the visual arts was strong. I loved drawing and painting; art has always been part of my journey, so I decided to study fine art. Before I gained admission to the polytechnic and university, I taught fine art in some private primary and secondary schools. My reason for specialising in painting was because I am fascinated by colours and their therapeutic effects on me. Painting brings me happiness, mental health, emotional intelligence and helps me to communicate my thoughts and improves my self esteem. Painting puts my life in order and helps me to stay passionate.

Is there any artist or creative person in your family?

Yes, my father was a creative person. I saw him create some metal works while growing up. He had plenty of equipment which helped to display his dexterity in fashioning farm tools. He also had several inspirational and creative writings on the wall at home. I believe these are the elements of creativity, I inherited from him.

What inspires and drives your work with children, teenagers, the downtrodden and people living with health conditions?

When I was about graduating from the university, I asked myself a critical question; ‘What would you do differently as an artist?’ That question has defined my purpose, existence, and work life as an artist. To me, life is not about how much you gain but how much you give. Looking at the pool of professional artists we have today in Nigeria, only a few of them think about giving back to the society. I want my life as an artist to inspire hope and bring healing to humanity. Art connects with everything that exists. Over 200 persons living with sickle cell disorder have benefited from our Art in Medicine art therapy programme. This focuses on patient care, healthcare environments,caring for caregivers and community well being. The patients have been impacted in various ways. For instance, in an atmosphere where the patient often feels out of control, the visual arts has served as a therapeutic and healing tool, reducing stress while loneliness and providing opportunities for self expression.

We are presently working on receiving endorsement on our Arts in Medicine programme by the Nigerian Medical Association. This would allow us opportunities to work with more hospitals and healthcare providers in Nigeria. It will also provide professional collaboration with health professionals. Arts in Medicine represents a rediscovery of the links between body, mind and spirit, and of the unity between the creative and medical arts. It recognises and advocates the role of the imagination and creativity in developing and maintaining health. Our intention is to fuse the arts with traditional healthcare practices and use creativity to transform the patients and their caregivers.

Do you have any mentors within and outside Nigeria?

Yes I have mentors in Nigeria and internationally like Chief Mrs Nike Okundaye, Dr Kunle Adeyemi the dean, School of Arts and Design, Yaba College of Technology, Professor Jordan Potash of the Art Therapy Graduate Program of The George Washington University and Ms Julie Conelly, the coordinator of Arts in Medicine, Tulane University. They have been a great source of inspiration.

Kunle Adewale with Chief Mrs. Nike Okundaye

Kunle Adewale with his art therapy mentor Prof. Jordan Potash

Has your work with internally displaced people helped on a long term basis, or is it more of a short term one and do you receive feedback from your students?

I am happy that my work as the international arts director for the International Coalition for the Eradication of Hunger and Abuse (ICEHA) has affected lives positively. Our Healing Through Art(HTA) programme aimed at healing the emotional wounds of survivors of Boko Haram, has impacted over 10,000 vulnerable children and adults.This programme is designed to have a long-term positive impact on the lives of the beneficiaries. HTA has redefined the experience of victims in meaningful and beautiful ways as it is gradually helping them overcome their emotional wounds and stop the perpetuation of terrorism. Unless the underlying psychological afflictions of trauma are addressed, the cycle of violence and poverty will pass from one generation to the next.

Kunle Adewale with Carolyn Ronis the founder of ICEHA’S Healing Though Art program in Africa

Kunle Adewale with some survivors of Boko Haram in a painting session

With some other survivors and their painting

How do you get funding or are your projects self-funded?

Most of my projects were self-funded at the beginning but later through collaborations with NGOs in Nigeria, I was able to run successful projects. Through partnership with organizations like the Sickle Cell Foundation Nigeria, Down Syndrome Foundation Nigeria, Children Living With Cancer Foundation, United Nations Information Centre, Lagos, Good Character Initiative of Nigeria, Terra Kulture, Special Correctional Centre for Girls, Lagos State Ministry of Youth and Sport and Social Development, successful projects have been carried out. I have also received support and endorsement from the US Department of State, US Mission Nigeria, US Consulate Lagos, International Child Art Foundation, Washington DC, Arts Council of The New Orleans, United States and the Society of Nigerian Artists.

In addition, well wishers and friends have also supported my projects over the years. I have recorded amazing results and success through the help of student and professional artists who volunteered for Tender Art community art projects in Nigeria. I always believe there is more we can do, when we come together. Collaboration always works for community projects.

You are a recipient of several international awards like the 2016 Commonwealth Youth Worker Award from the United Kingdom. Can you tell us more about this?

The theme for the Youth Work Week 2016 was Empowering Young People through Sports and Arts. It acknowledged the creative and innovative techniques youth workers employ to deliver effective  empowerment programmes. The 2016 shortlist showcased people using sports and the creative arts to inspire and support the development of underprivileged adolescents and young adults.On Thursday October 27, 2016, the Commonwealth secretariat announced the finalists for the award. Drawn from 14 countries, I was announced as one of the 4 finalists from Africa, and the only award recipient from West Africa. There were also 2 people from Kenya in East Africa and one person from South Africa. I am happy my community engagement and contributions were recognised by the Commonwealth Youth Division in United Kingdom.

You and your work have been featured in Nigerian and  international press. How has the impact been?

The feedback has been incredible, giving my work more visibility in Africa and on the international scene.

What projects are you working on?

I am currently working on The Slum Project at Makoko, Lagos, which is the biggest floating slum in the world. This project seeks to develop the potential of the marginalised young people using the vehicle of art. We will use creativity to change the narratives thereby bridging the gap of social exclusion of people in the low income community. I’m partnering with schools and platforms like Whayinna Primary School, The Sole Adventurer, SMO Contemporary Art and The Studio. We have professional artists and art curators Polly Alakija, Jelili Atiku, Pelu Awofeso, Bukola Oye and Dotun Popoola who are interested in working with us on this project. International creative art directors like Sebios Eudecris and Nehemiah Brown from Florence, Italy have also shown interest. We also will have professional volunteers and activities like painting, dance, drama, social development through art and tourism lined up.

What is your message to younger artists and others?

Artists are agents of social change. We must be socially engaged, culturally relevant, emotionally stable, economically empowered, intellectually efficient, physically strong, spiritually connected and professionally visionary. For everyone else,never settle for less when you can be more. You were not created to live a lesser life. Rise, break boundaries, the world awaits your manifestation.

Kunle Adewale at his studio

Image credits: Kunle Adewale


Adebimpe Adebambo is the Business Development Officer at Revilo, an art and culture publishing company. She studied Painting at the Yaba College of Technology, Lagos. Adebambo is also a fashion and accessories designer, and her work is concerned with environmental sustainability and recycling. She debuted as a costume designer on Tunde Kelani's award-winning film Dazzling Mirage, garnering for her efforts, 2 nominations in 2015 for an Africa Magic Viewers' Choice Award and an African Movie Academy Award for Best Costume Designer and Achievement in Costume Design, respectively. Adebimpe Adebambo loves to write and is presently working on a storybook.

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