Marianne Daher and Ana María Haz’s study, published in 2011, looked at the impact of artistic activities on the minds of 10 impoverished women living in Chile’s capital, Santiago. The study used art to help these women better understand the impact of poverty on their lives.
The researchers defined poverty as a deprivation both of physical needs and psychosocial needs, the latter of which includes self-knowledge, education and confidence.
Deprivation of both has been shown to arouse anxiety and affective disorders in women who live in poverty.
The study’s participants worked with a variety of materials and in a variety of mediums, including drawing, collage and painting. They worked alone and collaborated with other participants as well. At the end of the study, they invited friends and family to an exhibition of their work.
Researchers collected qualitative data through interviews with the participants. The women answered questions that asked them about their psychological state before, during and after the creation of their art.
Through their work, the scope of the burden of poverty became clear both to researchers and to the women themselves, who noted they rarely had chances to express themselves before. The women felt overwhelmed by their lack of education, their large families, their dangerous neighborhoods, their inadequate access to health services, their unfulfilling and unappreciated role as housewives and their inability to hire others to look after their children.
Art alleviates poverty by combating the stress that threatened to overwhelm these women. Women described the process of painting as relaxing, and they appreciated having time for self-development. Many women also learned about themselves during their artistic experiment.
“I find something absolutely different,” one participant said. She continued, “I find myself and my feelings. More than the painting itself, I find something I have always had, but now I got it: I find myself.”
Researchers discovered that the feeling of well-being nurtured by the artistic process carried over into the women’s daily lives. One participant described the metaphor between the correction of her mistakes while painting and the correction of her mistakes in her daily life:
“Many times I have complained because it [the painting] went wrong, but finally I could fix it! So, why shouldn’t I believe this is possible if I was also capable to correct my mistakes [at home].”
In the study’s conclusion, the researchers noted art’s potential to serve as a defense against the stresses of poverty. However, the study also shows how effective the artistic process can be at digging up the frustrations that impoverished women bury within themselves as a coping mechanism.
Bringing those frustrations into the open is a challenge that has perplexed many who have sought to find a way to measure poverty’s impact on the mental well-being of the poor.
During the past decade, traditional measures of poverty have seemed more and more inadequate—Chile’s CASEN survey, for example. The CASEN survey focuses on economic factors, comparing “homes’ per capita income with a minimum expected income,” but these factors say nothing about the psychological traumas that poverty can inflict on the impoverished.
To uncover those traumas, art may be the answer.
– Ryan Yanke
Sources: Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative 1, Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative 2, Psychology Today, American Journal of Community Psychology
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