What Art Can Tell Us About Health and Illness

Edna Bonhomme interviews curator and editor Bárbara Rodríguez Muñoz about the ways in which art can help us understand health, illness and mortality 

BY Edna Bonhomme AND Bárbara Rodríguez Muñoz in Interviews , Profiles | 15 JUL 21

Edna Bonhomme: Your work cuts across the intersections of medicine and health. How has your artistic and literary journey brought you to these disciplines?

Bárbara Rodríguez Muñoz: I have always been interested in working in interdisciplinary practices as well as collaborating with artists whose work is grounded in urgent issues. Health and social justice are rooted in my curatorial practice.

Self portrait of woman looking into mirror reflection
Jo Spence in collaboration with Rosy Martin, Maggie Murray and Terry Dennet, The Picture of Health, 1982. © The Jo Spence Memorial Archive, Ryerson University. Courtesy: MACBA Collection

EB: Could you explain what health means to you, in relation to individual beings, the public, or even planetary health?

BRM: I think Susan Sontag’s stance on the demarcations of health, from Illness as Metaphor (1978), is eloquent: seeing health as having two passports, one for the kingdom of the sick and one for the kingdom of the healthy. We wish we could always use the passport for the kingdom of the healthy, but that's not possible.

The COVID-19 pandemic is raising existential questions about individual and public health. I believe public health is like a garden that we tend together, an ecosystem we are all part of. This ecosystem relies on agents, seen and unseen, and everything is interconnected. This definition of public health has raised discussion around vaccination and our collective responsibility. Are people thinking about their community and how to protect each other? Then there is individual health, and the extent that people feel empowered to choose how they want to live and how they want to heal.

View of apartment blocks from window
Oreet Ashery, Dying Under Your Eyes, 2019, film still. Courtesy: the artist and Wellcome Collection

EB: Your recent book Health (2020) is a compilation of essays and excerpts from scholars and artists who reflect on illness and disease in relation to art. The texts also discuss the ethical and political practices of care. You include the living and dead, the sick and well. Black feminists and theorists are centred – for example, bell hooks’ essay ‘Subversive Beauty: New Modes of Contestation’ (1995), about the artist Félix González-Torres. hooks offers readers an opportunity to contemplate beauty in the context of mortality. How do you think through different versions of beauty and health in the publication?

BRM: In ‘Subversive Beauty’, bell hooks beautifully discusses encounters with mortality and death in public spaces as a very individual and, often, taboo experience. That's something I've been thinking about extensively in my practice: something that came into fruition in ‘Misbehaving Bodies: Jo Spence and Oreet Ashery’, an exhibition I co-curated at London’s Wellcome Collection with George Vasey in 2019. The exhibition explored chronic illness and thinking about death as an encounter, as well as what happens when we are confronted with somebody else's vulnerability – especially when it is taboo, or difficult to wrestle with. That is how Health came together.

Many of the contributors in the book are artists who have inspired me, as well as artists I have collaborated or spoken with such as Dora García, Patricia Domínguez and Johanna Hedva. The backbone of the book is Johanna Hedva’s essay ‘Sick Woman Theory’ (2016). It was interesting to think about the contributions to the edited volume: bringing together voices that were mainly women talking about vulnerability because of gender, sexuality, coloniality and race. 

Installation photography shot of woman in gallery
Installation shot of 'Misbehaving Bodies: Jo Spence and Oreet Ashery', 2019. Photograph: Thomas Farnetti. Courtesy: Wellcome Collection

EB: The first section of the book meditates on the term ‘viral’, and begins with an essay by Sur Rodney, ‘Activism, AIDS, Art, and the Institution’ (2016). Epidemics appear in many forms, sometimes distorted but mostly visible. This echoes what many are now experiencing in the COVID-19 pandemic.  It is important that you reflect on how marginalized people are dictating virality. It begs the question: what does it means for us to imagine collectivity in healing, especially if we think about how the lockdown was unevenly understood? What happens when we address epidemics within the realm of the visible and unseen?

BRM: The book was conceived prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Aimar Arriola’s text, ‘Global Fictions, Local Studies’ (2014) is interesting in terms of how we can harness collective action. If we think about the role of art, it can help with visibility and challenge the ways that illness is atomized or hidden. What this pandemic has done, on a massive scale, is to expose how structural inequalities in health play out everywhere, which was not something that everybody was discussing before. We are all potentially sick and we are all potentially infectious. I hope this book becomes part of a broader conversation about the work we need to do now: to refuse to keep hiding away stories about illness, and to be able to foster channels to express vulnerability in a safer way.

EB: It was recently announced that you are the new Director of Exhibitions and the Collection at Centro Botín. What is your vision for this new role?

BRM: Centro Botín, in Cantabria, located in the north of Spain, has an extensive contemporary art collection. I am looking forward to being closer to the sea and nature, and I will continue working with Wellcome Collection for ‘Rooted Beings’ (2021), a collaboration between Wellcome Collection and La Casa Encendida, in partnership with the Delfina Foundation. This exhibition focuses on art, ecology, and sustainable exhibition-making practices. At Centro Botín, I hope to use the collection as a starting point to talk about contemporary and urgent artistic debates.

Main image and thumbnail: Jo Spence, The Final Project ['End Picture' Floating], 1991. © The Jo Spence Memorial Archive, Ryerson University. Courtesy: Estate of Jo Spence, Richard Saltoun Gallery


Edna Bonhomme is a historian of science and a writer based in Berlin, Germany. Her work has appeared in Al Jazeera, The Atlantic, The Guardian, the London Review of Books and elsewhere. Her forthcoming book explores contagion in confined spaces.

Bárbara Rodríguez Muñoz is a curator and editor. She recently edited Health (2020), published jointly by MIT Press and the Whitechapel Gallery.