When a picture speaks a thousand words

Therapy is a necessary part of recovery for survivors of abuse, but many are too traumatised to talk about their experiences.

Art counselling is used to create a safe space in which victims—often children—can heal. “In art counselling these children get the chance to express themselves through material such as clay and through drawing and painting,” says Lerato Mopaung, founder of the Diversity Youth Club in Soweto.

Sarah Cohen Schwartz, of the Art Therapy Centre Lefika La Phodiso (The Rock of Holding) in Rosebank, Johannesburg, says this form of counselling can be a valuable tool because it is “less threatening than talking therapies because it is the image that is directly reflected on, rather than the person. This makes the process suitable for people who are vulnerable and to children.”

The centre has been training art counsellors and implementing art counselling projects within the education sector since 1997. Since then 143 projects have been initiated in areas such as Katlehong, Thokoza, Vosloorus and Tembisa. In July this year 12 more projects were set up in Soweto, Lenasia and Orange Farm, which are set to reach 120 teachers and 120 learners.

The centre in Rosebank offers community art counselling training. It is a two-year, part-time course, mostly for teachers who wish to establish art counselling units at their schools.

There are only two art therapists in South Africa. Art therapy differs from art counselling in that art counsellors are not qualified to analyse clients’ art and can use art only as a method to encourage conversation. An art therapist, on the other hand, is a registered psychologist who has undergone more specialised training.

Art counselling is effective in helping abused children because it “externalises the internal world of an abused child”, says Tinka Labuschagne, educational specialist at the Gauteng department of education: Ekhuruleni North District.

“I once worked with an abused eight-year-old girl. At first she drew pictures of herself, with her mouth knitted shut with needle and thread. In the picture her eyes where crossed out and she did not have hands.” Labuschagne says that, after a few months of counselling, her drawings changed dramatically.

“Eventually she started to draw more normal pictures of animals and landscapes. I remember her drawing herself again months later. In the picture she sang with her mouth wide open.”

Labuschagne says art counselling provides a safe space to create images that often reveal hidden and raw feelings of anger, mourning and vulnerability in an unthreatening way. “Art therapy is a new language for the child to express his or her inner world that transcends language and cultural barriers.”

Mopaung describes working with a 15-year-old girl who was physically abused by her father over a long period of time. “The girl was very aggressive, rude and offensive when she first came to my club. After a few sessions she drew a picture with a girl in the middle and a person on her left and her right. The person on her right was abusing her and the person on her left was pointing a gun at her. A black and blue cloud covered the girl.”

Mopaung says the girl became markedly less aggressive after a few months of counselling. “She started opening up about the abuse and how it made her feel.”

Dr John Botha, art history lecturer at the University of North-West, says it is not always necessary for clients to create art. He says visual art—where clients are shown pictures of existing works for interpretation—can be used effectively to reduce stress levels among victims of abuse.

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