- Healing through Art: Ritualized Space and Cree Identity
The massive therapeutic infrastructure, sometimes referred to as the 'Aboriginal healing industry,' that has developed over the previous three decades in response to the deplorable conditions of Aboriginal people in Canada has recently come under fire as potentially disempowering its target population because of its tendencies towards isolation and depoliticization. By segregating the Aboriginal individual from the collectivity and placing her or him within a (highly hierarchized) patient/therapist dynamic, standard Western clinical methodologies tend to affirm individualistic notions of personal health at the expense of more culturally appropriate notions of communal balance and harmony. Similarly, clinical methodologies tend to diffuse Aboriginal political resistance by reframing the psychological products of systemic oppression as individual neuroses to be 'healed' rather than political issues to be addressed.
Although regrettably Nadia Ferrara refrains from analysing the implications of her clinical findings to Aboriginal political struggles, Healing through Art makes a compelling case for the usefulness of Western art therapy - properly reconceptualized in relation to Cree worldviews - to the [End Page 175] efforts of Cree individuals to attain (or regain) healthy identities. Ferrara mitigates much of the disempowering potential embedded in Western therapeutic practice by reimagining the clinical environment as a ritualized space in which the Cree patient can 'interpret the events of their life and then situate them within frameworks of meaning that may be more culturally appropriate and sensitive to the individual's needs.' Unlike other forms of Western clinical practice, art therapy 'is initially silent, because patients are encouraged to create a drawing, painting, or sculpture and, thus, to express [themselves] on a non-verbal level.' Ferrara argues that this peculiar mix of creativity and silence is conducive to the comfort and openness of patients for whom English is not always a first language and for whom artistic creation is considered a culturally appropriate means of expression (rather than something reserved for professional artists and children, as is often considered the case in broader Canadian society). After production of the art object, Ferrara's methodology, developed over more than fifteen years of working with Cree communities in northern Quebec, encourages the patient to develop narratives in relation to her or his creation. These narratives 'become vehicles for the individual's search for and definition of self.' Thus, by emphasizing the role of the patient in producing the 'interactive dialogue' through which the 'ritual space' of art therapy is given 'meaning,' Ferrara undermines the implicit patient/ therapist hierarchy and provides the opportunity for her patients to - or, perhaps, empowers them to - seize control over their own 'healing' and indeed their own vision of self-identity.
Part ethnography, part methodological manifesto, and part autobiography, Healing through Art convincingly argues for an art therapy methodology that is adaptive to patients' cultural backgrounds and individual life-experiences. Particularly impressive is Ferrara's nuanced analysis of the 'Cree notion of the composite self.' Exposing the limitations of generalized postcolonial binaries between Western individualism and Indigenous communal identity, Ferrara examines the value attached to 'personal autonomy' and 'individuality' in Cree communities that at the same time devalue 'individualism in the form of egocentrism.' Ferrara's understanding of the composite self enables her art therapy to focus on the patient's 'individual autonomous self' while simultaneously recognizing and affirming that 'self' as part of a network of personal identifiers that include the equally important 'self-in-nature' and 'self-in-the-collectivity.' The isolating tendency of the therapeutic encounter is thus transcended by the therapist's recognition of the community's role in the psychological and spiritual health of its members and by the patient's narrativization of composite identity in terms of Cree mythopoesis.
Scrupulously researched and engagingly written, with effective use of individual case studies and reprints of patients' artwork throughout, Healing through Art offers a unique perspective on both art therapy and [End Page 176] Aboriginal healing. And while I remain sceptical about the overall benefits of the 'Aboriginal healing industry' so long as it stands in for political redress, Healing through Art...