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Being Healthy and Keeping Well: What Traditional Healing Practices Can Teach Us

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Living Legacies (2021) by artists Adeline Kueh, ila and Divaagar

If you had a headache after a long day, what would you do? Would you rub axe oil on your temples, or make a cup of ginger tea? Or would you pop a Panadol? What about if you had the flu, or a stomachache?

Vita, the fictional influencer in artist Divaagar’s soft salves (2021) partakes in a healthy – and trendy – turmeric latte
Vita, the fictional influencer in artist Divaagar’s soft salves (2021) partakes in a healthy – and trendy – turmeric latte. Check out Vita’s recipe for this golden milk to make it yourself! Image courtesy of Divaagar.

Publication coordinator Kong Yin Ying says, “If I repeatedly went to a Western medical practice and didn’t see any changes to my condition, I’d consider traditional Chinese medicine (TCM).” She views TCM as a viable alternative, but like many Singaporeans, defers to Western medicine as a default.

Traditional healing practices such as Ayurveda, TCM and traditional Malay medicine may not be the default healing practices in Singapore, but they are by no means unusual. For many, traditional healing practices are what they turn to when Western medicine fails.

TCM oil, image by Christin Hume
Image by Christin Hume on Unsplash.

In fact, several hospitals in Singapore have in recent years begun to offer TCM services within their premises – indicating greater public acceptance of and demand for these traditional healing practices.

As we celebrate the 200th anniversary of Singapore’s oldest hospital, Singapore General Hospital, we thought that it would be a timely occasion to also take a closer look at the traditional healing practices that form such a significant part of our culture and heritage.

Introducing Living Legacies

Living Legacies is Plural’s latest digital collaboration with the National Heritage Board for Singapore HeritageFest 2021, in which we explore how Singapore’s history, heritage and contemporary visual arts intersect. For this inaugural edition, In Sickness and In Health, we look at health, wellness and healing through the lens of art. Contemporary artists Adeline Kueh, Divaagar and ila were each invited to explore aspects of traditional healing practices, and respond to them in three newly commissioned digital artworks.

ideo still of ila’s buang angin: throwing caution to the wind (2021). In this work, ila explores the concept of wind (angin, feng, or vata) that is a common concept embedded in traditional medicine in Southeast Asia and Asia
Video still of ila’s buang angin: throwing caution to the wind (2021). In this work, ila explores the concept of wind (angin, feng, or vata) that is a common concept embedded in traditional medicine in Southeast Asia and Asia. Image credit: ila.

Drawing on their personal experiences with traditional healing, they reflect upon what traditional healing practices look like across different cultures, and how they have evolved and find renewed relevance today.

In the making of her work, ila reflects, “Remedy means to heal again and again. Unlike Western healing approaches in which we (get) rid of our illnesses with medication and treatments, these daily remedies are not meant to rid one of specific illnesses but to heal the body from weariness, overuse and exhaustion. Healing the body is a practice that allows for one to rejuvenate and revitalise the body from its daily use.”

Vasanthi Pillay, Founder and President of the Ayurvedic Association of Singapore (AAOS), agrees with this concept of healing and wellness. She explains that Ayurveda “defines the body (as) something that is constantly degenerating. If it’s degenerating we need to rejuvenate all the time. And the purpose of rejuvenating is to keep the body healthy so that I can use the body to do my work, whatever needs to be done.”

An invitation to consider the invisible

For her artwork for Living Legacies, artist ila reached out to members of the public to ask them about their understanding of wind and their own daily rituals or passed-down advice that they practice for their own health and wellness. Curiously, wind as a concept exists throughout the different traditional healing practices as feng, angin, and vayu/vata, and is typically a symptom of bodily imbalance across different cultural groups. 

In buang angin, ila explores different personal and collective relationships with wind and the body through a performative moving image work accompanied by three tutorial-style videos. She questions: will the collective belief of wind and body disappear into thin air in the future? In this behind-the-scenes video, find out more about ila’s process of creating buang angin, and the artist’s personal understanding of wind as taught to her through her family and community:

Through this lyrical reflection, ila recalls her personal experiences with wind, or angin, and invites us to consider our own relationship with it. If you would like to contribute your own responses to ila’s project, click here.

Tonics for the everyday

While ila investigates this very particular concept that transcends various traditional healing practices, Adeline Kueh turns her attention to homemade herbal recipes which incorporate principles of traditional medicine to boost immunity, relieve heatiness and cleanse the body.

Roadside Beauties and other tales of healing (2021) by Adeline Kueh features edible wildflowers, herbs and ingredients commonly found in traditional home remedies.
Roadside Beauties and other tales of healing (2021) by Adeline Kueh features edible wildflowers, herbs and ingredients commonly found in traditional home remedies.

Through a similar act of collecting, Adeline asked participants to share their favourite family recipes that were passed down to them through informal networks. She sees the memory of these recipes as a way of honouring the loved ones who shared them.

The artist muses, “There is a generational gap of sorts, and perhaps it is due to the lack of time or how knowledge about traditional remedies is passed down. I believe it is also a case of “what you don’t know, you don’t miss” – and more often than not, some of this information is transmitted through dialects and bahasa pasar (informal language).”

Given the unofficial manner in which such knowledge is transmitted, have you ever wondered why certain ingredients tend to be in the company of other usual suspects? For instance, codonopsis root (dang shen) and astragalus root (bei qi) are often brewed in the same soup as red dates (hong zao), wolfberry fruit(gou qi zi) and Chinese foxglove root (shu di) as a nourishing tonic.

Mr. Chow Khai Shui, managing director of Teck Soon Medical Hall and TCM doctor, shares this common wisdom about the medicinal benefits of herbs in TCM:

“A few herbs taken in combination with one another can enhance the effectiveness of each other, beyond each individual component’s efficacy when they are taken alone. Also, the preparation method is important.”

When used in tandem, these herbs multiply the effectiveness of the tonic, or conversely, they might help to curb or balance each other’s negative side effects.

In her work Roadside Beauties and other tales of healing, Adeline highlights remedies that have cooling properties, since they are sorely needed in tropical Singapore. In this behind-the-scenes video, we follow Adeline on a trip to Serangoon Market, where she also reflects on how acts of foraging, preparing and sharing herbal teas and soups are also acts of care and intimacy.

“If we care enough to listen and make, then someone else’s knowledge or experience would have been validated,” says the artist.

Passing on knowledge – then and now

In his work for Living Legacies, Divaagar also contemplates how knowledge is transmitted. He shares, “The oldest form of communication is through oral transmission, and in some ways influencer culture is a nod back to it. As the knowledge of Ayurveda was primarily distributed through oral transmissions, and even in how Ayurveda is advertised now, often with testimonials from customers, I saw a lot of potential in influencer culture in disseminating this knowledge and practice.”

soft salves (2021) by Divaagar follows fictional influencer and model Vita, as she shares her encounters with Ayurveda with her followers. Inspired by digital marketing, advertisements and image culture, soft salves utilises these elements in Vita’s journey of holistic wellness into Ayurveda.
soft salves (2021) by Divaagar follows fictional influencer and model Vita, as she shares her encounters with Ayurveda with her followers. Inspired by digital marketing, advertisements and image culture, soft salves utilises these elements in Vita’s journey of holistic wellness into Ayurveda.

One cannot help but relate this to what Vasanthi tells us, of how the early days of Ayurveda were characterised by the many cross-cultural exchanges and sharing of medical knowledge that occurred.

“Once you understand the principles, you can then apply it according to different cultures and different settings – that’s what Ayurveda is all about,” the educator says. “That’s why we call it universal and timeless.” However, she remarks that modern-day implementations of Ayurvedic principles often take them out of context, and has led to misrepresentation in mainstream culture.

soft salves is, in a way, a commentary on today’s wellness industry. Diva describes the wellness industry as providing and performing care for the sake of business, which creates an aesthetic of aspirational beauty for wellness. Whether or not one actively participates in this culture, its effects spill into other realms of everyday life. Through the figure of the influencer, soft salves  enacts the way that knowledge of natural remedies and audience engagement are instrumentalised in the perpetuation of the wellness industry.

We follow Diva as he stages the set for Vita’s exploration of Ayurveda and her pursuit of glowing skin:

The artist cleverly co-opts the language of the influencer even as he shoots his behind-the-scenes video… if you enjoyed it, don’t forget to like and subscribe, and hit the bell icon for notifications! (Yes, we learn from the best.)

So, is West the best?

At the end of the day, perhaps there is no standard solution when it comes to healing. Marketing executive Tamaryn Kong speaks to this when she says, “Traditional medicine systems fundamentally view each person as unique – unlike the one-size-fits-all medications under Big Pharma and big corporations, we’re not interchangeable.”

She believes in herbal medicine because of how it “considers the body, mind and soul altogether in one holistic system. I think modern medicine is only just starting to realise this and fit the pieces together.”

Adeline, Divaagar and ila each explore a different aspect of the nature of traditional healing practices, and in doing so, they invite us to probe more deeply into the knowledge that already surrounds us, which we may not yet appreciate despite it being such an essential part of our own heritage and environment. 

Every individual must figure out what works best for their body type and belief system. On a more personal note, this journey of exploration of traditional healing practices for the Living Legacies projecthas really opened our eyes to the myriad things that we can do to care for our bodies on a daily basis.

From diets to sleeping habits and even exposure to heat and water, traditional knowledge is there for the taking – if we choose to try and understand it.

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Living Legacies: In Sickness and In Health launches online today. If this topic interests you, join us for our Quiz Night on 20 May, 8pm, and stand to win attractive prizes, including a 2D1N staycation at Sofitel City Centre!

There will also be an online Artist Panel on 23 May, 11am – 12pm. Join us online to hear from the artists themselves.

This article is produced in collaboration with the National Heritage Board for Singapore HeritageFest 2021. Thank you for supporting the institutions that support Plural.

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