The Colors of Healing

Joseph Polack

We met by chance in Tokyo in autumn of 2012. I was aware of Kanem only as an internationally published fellow writer and an unconventional thinker. It took five days of intense brainstorming and a night outing to a crowded izakaya (Shinjuku tavern) to find out that Kanem is a painter. Between bites of raw fish and hot sake, I learn that she is on a quest: hunting for a set of traditional Japanese brushes used by master calligraphers. She's interested in finding the very best ones: the deer bristle jizomebake.

As she risked losing her return flight to Dakar, at last we found the right quality brushes, along with a couple of summer cotton yukata kimonos to be presented as gifts to her 92-year-old mother. Kanem boarded the airport van to Tokyo Narita from the Shinjuku Keyo Plaza Hotel at the last possible moment, and was gone.

Several months passed before I heard from her again. She was traveling: North America, West Africa, Scandinavia, and the Caribbean. Instead of her photo, her Skype site featured her latest painting; her time zones changed frequently. Her camera guided me along the beautiful African scenery behind the windows of her studio. Unfinished works depicted the elements of the landscape I had just seen. I exchanged a few words with a young Senegalese woman, one of her local students.

I didn't know at that time, that these brief encounters were flashes marking the beginning of an expedition into the inner world of an artist-hidden-in-a-scholar. My fascination with Kanem's art was gradually turning from her magical colors toward the mind of the person creating the paintings. Behind a deceptively light-hearted world of rich colors splashed with a soft Japanese brush onto white silk, I was discovering a strong-minded Renaissance woman expressing her many talents spread between science and the arts.

Kanem's multi-cultural upbringing led to her interest in mixing traditional healing with decades of work as a globally-active epidemiologist working with communities affected by HIV and AIDS. This thread could be traced in several of her current paintings. Her compositions seem to be rooted in contradictions surrounding her journeys. Some of her pieces are very cool, cleverly edited into a series of complex colors and unexpected forms. Others evoke emotional fragility, as if drawn from re-emerging memories of something haunting. These colors are subdued; they emanate from a deep well of self-expression.

Looking at Kanem's work, I wonder about her unusual life journey.

She first ventures far beyond her native Panama and the Western school of healing. After collecting advanced degrees, she practices in Harlem, USA. The frustration of caring for poor people who are not being provided with the resources and protection they need leads her into the field of philanthropy, where she becomes a vocal advocate for public health, especially for African women. She starts to discern the value of traditional healing methods still prevalent in Africa, finding further inspiration from the indigenous wisdom of Native Americans, Caribbean islanders, Peruvian shamans, and other healers in locations far away from her New York executive offices.

Kanem narrows her search. It seems as if her mind is slowly moving away from pure science to a world made of free-floating colors. She gradually focuses on art; the art of healing. Fascinated by freedom that art offers, she doesn't take a risk, the way that some of her fellow full-time artists are obliged to do: she methodically plans a sabbatical art project, which is structured in an almost scholarly way, spent in an art oasis, as she says, a place for "emancipated writers and poets" in a Senegalese eco-village. There she feels free to create.*

The intensity of her journeys, and the variety of people she mingles with during her international conferencing and consulting may be as impressive as emotionally draining. Stranded without her brushes, Kanem longs to be back in her studio admiring the natural beauty around her, and enjoying the solitude and the pause from all the many travels.

For Kanem is a medicine woman who has traveled half the world to find the color of the winds passing among their trees, in pursuit of the migrating souls of ancestors.

One of her quietly powerful paintings tells of such a migration, from one side of life to another. As a medical doctor she is used to dealing with Death in a rational, professional way. And yet, the memory of one funeral doesn't leave her. On her way from the burial to her car, Kanem paints a mental picture of the sky. It is a particular blue, while the wind carries pieces of birch bark, transparent. She sees the light. The light re-emerges onto silk from a memory from thousands of kilometers away, from the graveyard in New Hampshire. The painted memories of the light at the funeral, that for six months she struggled to recapture on silk in Trinidad, will live their own life in an online Japanese gallery from now on.

Hitomi, a young Japanese curator of e-space and a painter herself, was so fascinated by Kanems's unorthodox journey to the arts and by the richness of her colors that she decided to introduce Kanem's work right after the exhibition of a late Japanese painter, Master Ohmori. By exhibiting Kanem, Hitomi hopes that the youngest generation of her fellow Japanese artists would seek inspiration from an overseas painter's life and works. Works that they may never have had a chance to see in the physical space of a traditional Ginza gallery where Master Ohmori exhibited his classic paintings over four decades.

While Hitomi is preoccupied with searching for the best cross-cultural formula for curating the artifacts generated by an overseas physician-turned-painter, in exchanges regarding her personal notes about the colors of silence inhabiting our rain forests, Kanem helps me to discover the magic of an entire universe encapsulated in the lively 'mitochondria'.


One day, Kanem phones me from her African retreat to describe her recently completed pieces. When she mentions 'the lively mitochondria being equated to sunspots', I am lost. It's late at night in the ancient Japanese town of Kamakura where I live. I try to explain that like most medically untrained art lovers, I don't have the slightest idea what that "mitochondria" is all about. She doesn't seem to be discouraged at all. She keeps telling me the colors of "mitochondria" in detail. Sometime later, we speak while she is in Tamil Nadu in southern India. Her mind glides back to her latest transformation of mitochondria on silk. Surprised at my continuing ignorance about the magical world of these microscopic energy producers of the living cell, she gives me a mini-lecture on the inner works of our body and cell biology. And when I still don't quite understand, she turns impatient: "Why don't you just Google it!?"

The scholar-in-artist has taken over. Her words are precise, and her reasoning, rational, emotionless. Vanished is the artist-in-scholar who just shared an evocative composition of freely floating shades of blue and gold that she called a "Cosmic Flash".

The art with its colors is contemplative; Kanem claims that combinations of certain colors encourage healing. Yet some of the emotions projected on her silks are inspired not by scholarly transformations and pre-selected colors any more, but by an invisible color: The color of healing her own existential pain. And perhaps, some of our own, as well.

Copyright 2013: Joseph Polack