Leprosy is caused by a microbacterium, not by the wrath of God. Still, in India people with leprosy are stigmatized, stuck at the bottom of a caste system that technically no longer exists. Even their shadows are considered cursed, says Becky Douglas.
Douglas, who grew up in Salt Lake City, is the founder of a nonprofit called Rising Star Outreach, which provides microloans, mobile health clinics and schools for 20,000 people in 45 leprosy colonies in India. The success of the microloans can best be summed up by the story Douglas told the Deseret News last year: A man whose leprosy left him with two stumps for arms was a beggar in a nearby village; then he took out a $30 loan so he could buy a teapot and two cups and turned that into a small business selling tea to a shop whose owner once shooed him away.
Despite successes like these, a certain population of the leprosy colonies still languishes. "It's like they're waiting to die," says Douglas about the colonies' elderly, who are the most ignored of the world's most shunned people.
But now there has been some success on that front, too. The results will be on display beginning today and running through July 11 at Art Access Gallery, 230 S. 500 West. The exhibit of paintings is called "The Bindu Art School: Triumph of the Human Spirit."
The Bindu Art School was launched in 2005 in the Bharatapuram leprosy colony in southern India. It was started by Austrian artist Werner Dornik and Rising Star Outreach director Pema Venkataraman, an activist who first brought the concept of microlending to the leprosy colonies.
Some of the elderly residents of the colony were so disfigured that their hands looked like claws, Douglas says, and their limbs were so numb they didn't notice when rats gnawed at them. Dornik taped paintbrushes to their fists and started them out with just two colors of paints, black and blue. The combination of the paints and the general mood of the painters resulted at first in art that was dark and depressing.
"But as the patients began to change, the art became more whimsical, more joyous," Douglas says. Instead of not even talking to each other, she says, they now laugh and play games. They've also stopped asking for so many pain pills, she says.
The 27 painters have had their work shown in fancy galleries from Chennai to Vienna to Washington, D.C. One of the four painters who made the trip to Vienna told an interviewer that he had received so much love and respect there that he almost forgot he had leprosy a statement that thrilled Douglas. "In India," she says, "leprosy is the entire sum of who they are."
One hundred percent of the sales of the paintings at Art Access' Bindu exhibit will go to the artists and the project: one-third to the art school, one-third to the artists (divided equally among all 27), and one-third to start art schools in the other leprosy colonies.Inspired by what Douglas calls the "life-changing" nature of the school, Rising Star Outreach is now also starting a photography school and a dance school headed by Broadway dancer Shaun Parry. The goal of the schools is to give the residents a way to express themselves. The goal of Rising Star Outreach, Douglas says, "is to end leprosy in this generation in India."