Review: Foreign Bodies, Common Ground at London's Wellcome Collection

By Emily Beeson | 03 December 2013

Exhibition review: Foreign Bodies, Common Ground, Wellcome Collection, London, until February 9 2014

A photo of two artists in lab coats standing in a portrait studio with red curtains
Miriam Syowia Kyambi and James Muriuki, Pata Picha Studio© Wellcome Images
Labcoats dripping with bling, kitsch photo studios, folk-art graffiti, herbalism and prosthetic animal carcasses; this exploration of global health features six artists from different contexts and nations, working in contrasting media to interrogate modern medical research and its social relevance.

From photographs and sculpture to installations and paintings, artworks communicate the importance of medicine to local communities in Thailand, Vietnam, South Africa, Kenya, Malawi and the UK – locations linked by the Trust’s research support.

Miriam Syowia Kyambi and James Muriuki's kitschy Pata Picha Photo Studio, a mobile set where visitors are invited to pose in front of cameras whilst exploring belief systems and health practices in Kenya, proves garishly inviting.

Filled with cultural artefacts such as a standard-issue school desk, plastic flowers and a microscope, the set references Kenya's history, health and cultural identity.

Dotted around the studio are lab coats, alluding to education, religion, money and power. With additional arabic text, Catholic imagery and golden lapels, this medical garb identifies an interactive link between aspirations of wealth and status and the practise of medicine today.

There is, as Syowia Kyambi explains, a history of photo studios in Kenya. Photography is a popular artistic medium and the studio is a physical space which reflects this. Five large-scale photographs are mounted behind the souped-up lab coats, showcasing the studio's visual conversations with visitors in Kilifi.

Across the room, Vietnamese artist Lena Bui's perceptions of zoonosis - the study of animal to human contact and the passing of disease - provides a hard-hitting selection of works.

Images of raw-looking artificial food, vacuum-packed pigs' faces and bags of fake blood look sinister against clinical white walls. A stark triptych demonstrates the contrast between scientific inquiry and visceral, biological reality, depicting marks representing teeming cells.

A video of a woman raking feathers, describing the consumption of birds and the need for a strong stomach, plays in a dark room opposite a large-scale glossy sculpture that shines a brilliant white.

Malawian artist Elson Kambalu's graffiti-esque earth paintings, which mirror local traditional artworks, read like folk songs and provide a narrative of health, medicine and the cultural practice of Malawian women.

Figures netted in twine stand tall in a corner. These are Kafukufuku or research sculptures, a visual manifestation of medicine in oral, folk culture. The shapes, comprised of clods of earth and paint represent the ominous mythical figure of a woman who has been stabbed and drilled for blood.

Alongside these thought-provoking works are pieces by B-Floor Theatre of Thailand, a collection of earnest images exploring ‘impilo engcono’, or good health, by young South African photographers, and Fossil Necklace, created by British artist Katie Paterson. Comprised of meticulously carved fossil beads from many stages in the earth’s history, the necklace provides an archaeological timeline of the planet.

At every turn, each artist provides a compelling, culturally relevant and decidedly eye-opening insight into health, medicine and cultural practice today; brought together in a single space, the atmosphere is bewitching.

  • Open 10am-6pm (10pm Thursday except January 2, 11am-6pm Sunday, closed December 23 - January 1). Admission free. Follow the Collection on Twitter @ExploreWellcome‎.

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A photo of a young female artist standing next to a screen showing two people with hay
Artist Lena Bui with her work, Where Birds Dance Their Last© Wellcome Images
A photo of a young woman looking at a large bead necklace with a microscope
Curator Danielle Olsen looks at Fossil Necklace (2013), by Katie Paterson© Wellcome Images
A photo of two african men sitting on a bench outside a brick building talking
Elson Kambalu with a Community Health Worker© Courtesy the artist Elson Kambalu (Blantyre, Malawi)
A photo of a man looking at a screen in a research lab while two people watch him
In residence at Wellcome Trust-Mahidol University-Oxford Tropical Medicine Research Programme, Thailand, Dr M Trent Herdman (far left), Radcliffe Travelling Fellow, describes how an Alice monitor collects and displays information about heart, brain, and muscle electrical activity© B-Floor Theatre
A photo of an African man standing behind an installation involving various white wires
Artist Elson Kambalu, from Malawi, with his work Kafukufuku Man and Kafukufuku Woman© Wellcome Images
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