It was while at the Teaching Hospital, Karapitiya that Pakistani artist Mariah Lookman had a growing feeling that she needed to give something back. When her cancer returned last year amidst the first COVID lockdown, she had had to make some difficult choices about treatment; which hospital, which doctor, where? Living in Galle with her [...]


Reaching out through art

Pakistani artist Mariah Lookman who now makes her home in Galle brings together 23 artists from Sri Lanka and across the world to support the Cancerfund-Galle

It was while at the Teaching Hospital, Karapitiya that Pakistani artist Mariah Lookman had a growing feeling that she needed to give something back. When her cancer returned last year amidst the first COVID lockdown, she had had to make some difficult choices about treatment; which hospital, which doctor, where? Living in Galle with her husband, the artist Muhanned Cader, Mariah chose the Teaching Hospital, Karapitiya under the care of Senior Oncological Surgeon Dr Chrysantha Perera.

“I have never been treated at a government hospital for something so serious,” she says.

Mariah had lived and studied in the UK so she had options. But she made up her mind, with the support of family and friends in the medical field that she would stay in Galle, and while she may have lacked some of the comforts she was used to, she found the hospital system reassuringly human. “I liked the nurses, I felt comfortable.”  At night it almost felt like boarding school, she says, of the camaraderie in the ward, where she got to know a lot of people from different walks of life. Gaining a deeper understanding of some of the hardships they and their families faced, she felt she should do something, though she didn’t at the time, know what. What struck her was that some had greater difficulty due to their circumstances.

A poster outside the ward asking for donations registered in her mind and she took a picture of it, which she still has on her phone. Later while going through chemotherapy at the Apeksha Hospital in Maharagama, she dropped in to Karapitiya to see Dr Perera and when he took her on a tour of the new Palliative Care Unit which was just ready to open, ideas took shape.

Art therapy sessions were her first effort, with the Shyamala School of Art in Colombo coming down once a month and all at the Palliative Care Unit, patients, nurses and doctors joining in.

This week the Cancerfund-Galle which Mariah has now set up will see its first fundraiser – an exhibition titled ‘Tonight No Poetry Will Serve’ from the poem by American writer and anti-war activist Adrienne Rich. The terminology and treatment of cancer being often militaristic, an approach Mariah is at odds with, she chose the thought-provoking line to suggest a more subtle, gentler response.

The exhibition she is curating has some 70 original works of 23 artists – Mariah’s friends from all over Sri Lanka (she lectured at the Eastern University for a while), and from around the world who responded unhesitatingly when she broached the idea. Opening at the Barefoot Gallery on November 26, it will be on in Galle too from Sunday, November 28 and continues in both venues until December 5. It is the first of three exhibitions she plans.

Mariah Lookman

The Cancerfund-Galle is dedicated to the Oncology Unit and Palliative Care Unit of the Teaching Hospital  Karapitiya  to support cancer patients and their families through holistic approaches, care and rehabilitation. Registered as a private trust with an advisory board and steering committee, it will work with the Sri Lanka Cancer Society, Galle Branch.

The funds raised, will go to support those unable to pay for their urgent medical needs, for practical measures like paying for ward attendants to help a patient after surgery, for supplementary foods and specialist surgical items required for patient care. In line with a holistic approach to healing, art therapy, guided yoga and meditation sessions are also planned to help with emotional and psychological wellbeing. She hopes to build a dedicated team drawn to sustain their work not just on a therapeutic front but even on prevention.

Mindful that not everyone can afford a painting but may still like to support the cause, there are raffle tickets, a limited-edition catalogue and sketchbooks by Eco-Maximus available for purchase at the exhibition. Widening the participation is important to her.

The Cancerfund-Galle website, soon hopefully bilingual, is where people can find information about their mission and even stories from survivors ‘from our part of the world’ – to give comfort and encouragement that patients are not alone. Sharing a story can be cathartic, both to the teller and to the hearer.

There are many many such ideas overflowing which will take shape in the months ahead. “We can start to make small, small differences.”

The huge psychological toll cancer takes on patients is often not talked about. Some see it as their fate, karma – but Mariah sees a huge gap between acceptance with the attitude ‘what can I do with this’ rather than resignation. Your culture is also something that influences you, she says. Her PhD research in Oxford (she has a D.Phil from the Ruskin School of Art) begun soon after her first experience of cancer in 2008, looked at the intersection of art and medicine and science, and somehow, she feels she has come full circle, in a strange way, immersed in and making sense of all that she explored in more academic terms.

More recently, reading and researching, she learned of Sri Lanka’s own wealth of indigenous knowledge, the tradition of monasteries, meditation, ancient hospitals like in Mihintale. All this holistic knowledge could also be employed to help people feel less distressed, she feels, instead of only taking an allopathic, aggressive treatment route.

When you’re confronted with mortality, if what you really want is to live, then you must get on with the living, she believes.  All that anxiety and stress if you choose to, can be channelled into something positive – you can put that energy to work.

Sometimes you want to but you can’t, she says, deeply thankful that she is able to work towards giving back to the community she feels so much a part of.

‘Tonight No Poetry Will Serve’ features the original works of Ali Kazim, Anoli Perera, Anwar Saeed, Ayesha Jatoi, Barbara Sansoni, Chandragupta Thenuwara, Dominic Sansoni, Duk Ju L. Kim, Elizabeth Porter, Hamra Abbas, Hugo Tillman, Jeanne Thwaites, Karunasiri Wijesinghe, Mahbub Shah, Menika van der Poorten, Muhanned Cader, Nelun Harasgama, Rupaneetha Pakkiyarajah, S.P. Pushpakanthan, Stephen Champion, Tim Kurtz, T. Shanaathanathan and
Vinoja Tharmalingham.

The exhibition will be held in two venues – in Colombo at the Barefoot Gallery from November 25 -  December 5 from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekdays and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sundays. It will also be in Galle from Sunday, November 28 at the Galle Fort Art Gallery, 60 Leyn Baan Street from 11 a.m to 5.30 p.m. For more information, see:

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