Creative Resilience is a UNESCO co-creation with 54 women scientists from around the world to showcase their artistic works inspired by the fight against and reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Creative Resilience is not a traditional art exhibition, but rather exhibits the creative expressions of women neuroscientists, microbiologists, doctors, nurses, medical students, researchers, science communicators, engineers and mathematicians of all ages. They are STEM women, who are using their artistic talents, combined with their expertise in the fields of science, health, science communication and technology to provide a testimony of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Through painting, photography, computer drawing, block print, sculpture, crocheting or film, these “sci-artists” provide a testimony of how the global health pandemic has transformed the way we interact and how we are slowly emerging from it into new, transformed societies.
For centuries women have expressed their passion for science through the arts, sharing their discoveries and ideas through intellectual and creative works. Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717), for instance, was a self-taught botanist, ecologist and entomologist before these fields were even defined. Gertrude Mary Woodward (1854-1939) made paleontological illustrations for the British Natural History Museum in the early 1900s. But women have had to be resilient and fight for access to education, laboratories, or other opportunities to publish or exhibit their works. This struggle is far from over. It has become more complicated because of the disproportionate impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on women.
While both women and men face difficulties in the current global health crisis, women are having to struggle additionally with systemic gender-based inequalities. They remain largely invisible, even though they have been at the frontlines combating the COVID-19 pandemic. This creates a need for them to be heard and communicate their unique experiences of how their lives and perspectives have been transformed by the pandemic.
Some of the scientists featured in Creative Resilience transformed their scientific tools into art pieces, like biomedical researcher Marta Novotova from the Slovak Republic, who turned colored microscopic pictures of SARS-CoV-2 infected cells into art pieces. Others used their talents to address the endemic disinformation that escalated in parallel with the health pandemic to pull back the curtain of anxiety with the facts, like Tahani Baakdhah, a neuroscientist from Saudi Arabia. Others highlighted the struggle of women to balance their lives as scientists with all the care and gendered domestic roles left to them during lockdown, like scientists Olivia Lee from Malaysia or Gabriela Miño Castro from Ecuador. Some were transformed: they left their scientific profession in 2021 and are now pursuing their journeys of discovery through art, like Radhika Patnala, a neuroscientist from India or Léni Whitford, a nurse from France.
Not only do their artworks tell us something about their personal stories, but they also make us reflect on the current state of the global human condition. They provide a narrative to communicate our shared hopes and dreams, our shared pains, struggles, insecurities and fears. Some of them, like the Pakistani engineer, Remal Arif, have combined all these emotions in their paintings or sculptures. Others used their artistic skills to translate scientific information into accessible messages that could empower people through knowledge. Some of them gathered colleagues from the same profession and asked them what it is like to work during school closures. This is the case of a group of more than 80 women mathematicians, featured in the film produced by Eugenie Hunsicker, Sonia Mahmoudi, Claudia Malvenuto, Sylvie Paycha, and Eriko Shinkawa.
Many of the STEM women featured in this exhibition help us to see the light in the darkness, the opportunities amidst the confusion. Their message of positive change and opportunities for women inspire us to imagine, resist and persist. The paintings of Valentina Josan, microbiologist from the Republic of Moldova, give us hope that the “light of yesteryear will shine again as long as we evolve and adapt to the many disruptions and daily life changes brought by the pandemic”. They also remind us that the process of transformation can be quiet, even silent. In her series of paintings, Silent Talk, Egyptian engineer Christine Arida takes us to a place of intimate personal relations of support, relief and love, reminding us to value hidden joys in quiet moments of reflection.
The scientists in this exhibition also see opportunities resulting from the pandemic to connect in ways they never thought possible. The works of electrical engineering student Isna Ahsan from Pakistan reflect our reliance on digital technologies during the pandemic and the possibilities this has given women scientists in terms of access and connectivity with the world, mobility and freedom of choice, like never before.
While French mathematician, ACHYAP, depicts the continued struggle of women to succeed in the community and creativity of mathematics teachers to adjust to the “absence of blackboards” in times of school closures, others remind us of the medical innovations by women of the past. They celebrate the achievements of women scientists today to fight stereotypes and advocate for diversity and inclusion in science, as we see in the works of Eleonora Adami, Italian molecular biologist and genomist. Furthermore, biotechnologist Indu Ambika Gopalankutty from India wants us to see that women are playing a bigger role in science today, ready to exploit their full potential.
Some of the scientists have characterized the COVID-19 pandemic as a pandemic of fear and pain. Their works hold up a mirror to show loss and pain felt around the world. By building bridges between individuals, they help us share our own burdens and transform them into a form of collective healing.
The work of French nurse Vanessa Braunstedter, aka GueRRir, is a series of black and white photographs that characterize COVID-19 as a war. Turkish architect and designer Zeynep Çakar presents a series of paintings that depict the chaos experienced throughout the pandemic and the traumatic emotional stress that closed in on our inner worlds. Slovak archaeologist Petra Dragonidesová presents a single image of two hands in her work, Connections. This captured moment touches everyone who was in forced isolation from their loved ones in hospital because of the pandemic restrictions. The meaning of simple gestures such as handshakes were transformed, and smiles were hidden behind masks. Longing for a human touch that was denied even at the moment of death is prevalent in the work of Namrata Pandit from India who reflects the “deep scar on the human psyche as a result of the pandemic, a trauma people will deal with for a long time after COVID-19 is over”.
The perceived gap between scientists and the greater public is not new, but the pandemic provides us with a new opportunity to build bridges. Women scientists have not only been at the forefront of the global scientific response to the pandemic, they have also acted as facilitators, translating complex ideas into language that can be understood by society at large. We see in this collection the works of Norwegian biostatistician Kathrine Frey Frøslie who filmed a series of crocheted coronavirus and vaccination coverage ponchos to help people decipher the news. Avesta Rastan, a biomedical illustrator from Canada, designed a digital infographic to communicate how COVID-19 affects humans from the path of the virus in the air towards the lungs and explains, how the immune system reacts. Her goal was to “combat misinformation to empower people to take control of their actions”. Her illustration has been translated into 18 languages and received over 2 million views on social media.
Finally, a leitmotif of the work of these fifty women scientists is, in the words of Mariana Carp from the Republic of Moldova, “to embrace change, value life, freedom and the creativity it can produce”. Together, these scientists use their art as a mean to challenge us to think critically about how we can transform everything from our personal human relations to our healthcare systems. But they also remind us that we are a living on a connected planet. Sukanya Hasan, zoologist from Bangladesh, shows us how the tools we use to protect ourselves from the COVID-19 virus are the same materials that we are using to harm the environment as well as the animals, who share our planet, and that we must be positively selective and do no harm to nature.
Regardless of the scientific field they pursue, their country of origin, or the form of art they have chosen to express themselves, the contribution of these women scientists to Creative Resilience gives us new perspectives and means to interpret the current and future transformations of our world.