The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

EXPAT ART AS THERAPY: Works that capture precious memories of life in other countries

ExpatArtasTherapy_Principle1As explained in my introductory post to this series, the Swiss-British philosopher (and Adult Third Culture Kid) Alain de Botton argues that art of all kinds can be a form of therapy, providing powerful solutions to many of life’s dilemmas.

But is that also true of expat works? Does our art benefit humanity more broadly, or are we creating things—memoirs, novels, films, dance and stage performances, social enterprises—that will only ever speak to people like ourselves: what fellow global soul Pico Iyer has called the great floating tribe of people “living in countries not their own”? (We currently number around 230 million, or just over 3 percent of the world’s population.)

SEND IN THE CLOUDS: "London from Hampstead Heath," by John Constable (British Museum)

SEND IN THE CLOUDS: “London from Hampstead Heath,” by John Constable (British Museum). Photo credit: John Constable, via Wikimedia Commons.

In his “Art as Therapy” lecture, de Botton specifies 6 ways art can answer human needs.

The remainder of this series will look at whether, and to what extent, these observations apply to the works of international creatives, beginning with…

Principle #1: Art can compensate for the fact that we have bad memories.
De Botton cites John Constable and his paintings of clouds above Hampstead Heath as an example of how an artist can sometimes capture something significant yet fragile they have experienced and don’t want to forget.

Will the John Constables among us please stand up? Seriously, it strikes me that we international creatives are well positioned to preserve the memories of the daily wonders we’ve encountered in far-flung parts of the world, our knowledge of which accrues over time. (Not for us the Wonders of the World, when there are so many intrepid world travelers around, eager to conquer them.)

Back in the days when I lived first in England and then in Japan, I always felt like the poor cousin of the anthropologist—I wasn’t an area specialist but that left me free to approach life with an Alice-like curiosity, never quite losing the sensation of having fallen through the rabbit hole. And to convey that to others…

But let’s look at some examples, shall we? Each of the visuals below is inspired by or belongs to the work of an international creative that has featured on this site in some way. I selected these four individuals because of their ability to conjure up an image of something rather precious within their new landscape—the expat equivalent of a dramatically shaped cloud. And, as de Botton has been invited to do at several museums, I’ve added post-it notes describing the therapeutic effects I experienced.

#1: Parabéns: We’re All Mad Here

Parabens

Photo credit: Marbela via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

OBJECT LABEL: Parabéns: We’re All Mad Here, inspired by Megan Farrell (aka Maggie Foxhole) and her book, American Exbrat in São Paulo.
ML’S POST-IT: I have never been to Brazil, but reading Farrell’s step-by-step guide for foreigners who are living (or planning to live) in São Paulo piqued my curiosity. I particularly enjoyed her vivid account of the Brazilian birthday party. What a palava! Far beyond my wildest imaginings. But what is even more curious to me is the Sweet Table, sitting in splendid isolation until the very end of the festivities. According to Farrell:

“The design of the Sweet Table is on the same level of importance for the birthday party as is the set design for a Broadway performance. It consists of hundreds of sweets, strategically placed around the other decorations. But most importantly, NO ONE TOUCHES the Sweet Table until the birthday candles have been blown out at the end of the party. No one. An interesting objective when you have anywhere from thirty to fifty children running around wild and free.”

I rather like the thought of deprivation in the midst of so much decadence: does that make the brigadeiro, when you finally get one, taste even sweeter?
FURTHER READING: Our interview with Megan Farrell, by Andy Martin: Why exbrats in São Paulo need their own book to appreciate life in Brazil’s largest city.

#2: Are Acacia Trees Humans in Disguise?

Acacia Trees

Photo credit: Gezira Sporting Club, by Jorge Láscar via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).

OBJECT LABEL: Are Acacia Trees Humans in Disguise?, inspired by Alice Award nominee Kathleen Saville‘s description of these trees in Zamalek, Gezira Island (Cairo, Egypt) in a post for her personal blog.
ML’S POST-IT: The thought of living in Egypt scares me, and I’ve been avoiding most trees ever since Hurricane Sandy. But after reading Saville’s description of Egyptian acacias—

I see folds and twists in the trunks like nothing I have ever seen in another tree. Each tree looks like a long thin body or leg covered with support hose. It’s odd because the appearance is almost human like.

—I feel calmer. Might I have a tree-hugging future?
FURTHER READING: Saville’s blog, Water Meditations, focusing on her water travels.

#3: Elephant Road Trip

Elephant Road Trip
OBJECT LABEL: Elephant Road Trip, inspired by Ruth Hartley and her novel about Africa, The Shaping of Water (Hartley grew up in that part of the world).
ML’S POST-IT: Hartley’s novel begins with the construction of the Kariba Dam, one of the largest dams in the world, over the Zambezi, the fourth-longest river in Africa, flowing into the Indian Ocean. As much as I enjoyed Hartley’s book, I could never quite wrap my head around the scale of what she describes, whether talking about the dam, a massively ambitious project, or about the problems Africa faces as it attempts to shake off the colonial yoke. Perhaps that’s why I took comfort in Hartley’s description of elephants serving as the continent’s original bulldozers:

The roads over the escarpment follow for the main part the old migratory routes taken year after year for millennia by elephants. Elephants, who for all those thousands of years would roam, not just around Zimbabwe, or just around Kenya, but all the way up sub-Saharan Africa from south to north and back again. Now human governments have decreed that elephants must obey human laws and stay within the bounds of national boundaries drawn by straight-edged rulers on maps. In the time before colonization, a mere 150 years ago, elephants travelled where they always travelled, and they walked across mountains with consummate skill and ease, always finding the most direct routes through the least difficult of the passes.

In the midst of a man-against-nature, man-against-man story, I found it a restorative to imagine these pre-colonial times when the elephant, such a magnificent beast, could be relied on to forge trails through the dense brush and trees.
FURTHER READING: Coming soon: our interview with Ruth Hartley about her book.

#4: Shanghai Mix

Shanghai Mix

Photo credit: Rachel Kanev.

OBJECT LABEL: Shanghai Mix, consisting of a photo taken by globe drifter Rachel Kanev, which she chose to feature in her iinterview with James King for our site’s “A Picture Says…” column.
ML’S POST-IT: Rachel has captured a memory of an experience I’ve had several times myself but had nearly forgotten: namely, what it’s like actually to witness Asian economic development rather than pontificate about it. As Rachel puts it in her chat with James:

In that fleeting instant, one can see Shanghai’s varied transportation, high-rise buildings and red lanterns, as well as Kate Winslet—that curious amalgamation of Western modernity and Chinese traditionalism that is everywhere around you in the city.

Perhaps because she snapped the photo just as the sun was setting, it fills me with sweet nostalgia. (I’m not remembering the smog, for a change…)
FURTHER READING: Rachel Kanev’s blog, Globe Drifting

* * *

So, readers, what do you think of the above “exhibition” of works that touch on expat experiences and emotions. Did you find it therapeutic? And are there other expat works you would recommend for this reason? Do tell in the comments.

STAY TUNED for next week’s fab posts.

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3 responses to “EXPAT ART AS THERAPY: Works that capture precious memories of life in other countries

  1. cindamackinnon November 8, 2014 at 8:40 pm

    Enjoyed reading your post – creative in itself.

    • ML Awanohara November 9, 2014 at 10:19 am

      Thanks so much, Cinda. When I listened to Alain de Botton’s lecture on YouTube, I knew I wanted to do a series, but I had no idea how I would explore his points as he focuses mainly on visual arts, and here at the Displaced Nation, we focus a lot on writing. So I had to come up with a visual way to represent some of the works I’ve read in connection with this site. I’m glad you found it effective.🙂

  2. Pingback: What Are Literature, Philosophy & History For? Alain de Botton Explains with Monty Python-Style Videos | DIGITALSOULS.COM

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