It’s About the Cause, Not Applause


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International Exchange Alumnus Kunle Adewale pairs arts with medicine as a therapy.
Kunle Adewale was determined to find a way to combine the arts with medicine as a therapy, but when he couldn’t find any institutions or mentors to partner with, the primary school teacher and artist created his own non-governmental organization (NGO).

“What I couldn’t find, I became,” Kunle says in his MentorTalks interview. “I was looking for individuals that were using art in health. I couldn’t find any, so I became that person.”

It was through his Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders program that Kunle was able to build on his passion. His journey has led him to create a network of 300 students and professionals, and to impact “over 15,000 beneficiaries through his art programs in Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, South Africa and the United States.”

Failing forward

According to Kunle, when we admire people, what we admire is the success story, “But we never pay attention to how they’ve failed,” he says.

“If you ever fail in life, fail forward. When you fail forward, you use it as a propeller to become successful. Failures help you learn how to do something.”

“I never thought I would go to college. My dad told me what I can’t be and what I can’t do. But I said ‘no, I want to go to college.’ Seven times in seven years I failed. If I had given up, I would have never met President Barack Obama,” he says.

Kunle’s work as one of the first Eyes of the Artist Fellows led to a special honor: Cincinnati, Ohio Mayor John Cranley declared August 2 “Kunle Adewale Day” in recognition of his contribution to the United States in both the fields of Arts and Medicine.

Kunle credits his Mandela Washington Fellowship for giving him an education in the work he wanted to do and as a “ripple effect” that led him to his most recent stay in the U.S. as an Atlantic Fellow for Equity in Brain Health. As a part of the fellowship, Kunle has been running art workshops for seniors impacted by dementia in San Francisco, California.

The project has gone virtual during the COVID-19 pandemic, and Kunle has been collecting love letters from around the world alongside photographs to send to first responders, as well as to send letters of hope to COVID-19 patients in partnership with The Foundation for Photo/Art in Hospitals. 

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A photo from Kunle's project in partnership with The Foundation for Photo/Art in Hospitals. Photo by Elaine Poggi.

“The world is in a great deal of pain right now,” he says. Collecting these letters is a way to spread empathy and healing to medical staff and to patients, which is key to their wellbeing.

“One of the implicit challenges that COVID-19 presents to us is the resultant worsening mental health problems and stigmatization of not just the patients but equally the healthcare givers at the frontline,” Kunle says. “This is the time to show solidarity, a moment for our shared humanity to make the world a better place.”

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One of the works produced by a senior citizen with dementia as part of Kunle's work as an Atlantic Fellow for Equity in Brain Health. Kunle has conducted these workshops at a distance due to COVID-19.

The project is still in its collection phase, but once the work is out there in the fall, Kunle hopes that the art will uplift patients, family members, and healthcare workers.

Words and art are powerful, he says, and he stresses the journey of making art is the important element, not the output. That is what allows Kunle to turn sadness, isolation, and depression into healing through the expression of the human spirit.