Artist teams up with Doctors Without Borders to take on demon diseases

Photo: ČTK/Vít Šimánek

Doctors Without Borders (MSF) Czech Republic has joined forces with artist Toy_Box to launch a new exhibition on Prague’s Artwall Gallery. I visited the opening in Letná Park to learn about the collaboration—and received a lesson in public health as well.

Photo: ČTK/Vít Šimánek
The unsettling images rise from the embankment above the Vltava: diseases that kill millions around the world, personified as demons. Titled “Don’t Look! Kala Azar et al.,” the exhibition is a highly visible effort to raise awareness of a global health crisis. Czech MSF director Pavel Gruber described the so-called “neglected diseases” depicted in the series.

“It’s a group of diseases which put at risk more than one and a half billion people, and they have a few things in common. Usually if you go into detail and talk about any of them, you discover the diagnostic methods are quite poor, quite toxic, very insufficient. And the same is for medication: We either have no medication, or a very old one, or a very toxic one.”

This is MSF’s second collaboration with street artist Toy_Box, who also painted the door to their Prague headquarters in Žižkov. The artist told me about her decision to render the diseases in supervillain form.

Toy_Box,  photo: ČTK/Vít Šimánek
“There are many people who suffer from these diseases, but the pharmaceutical firms, they don't [spend] enough money to cure them and for the research for these diseases. So it was kind of a scary idea for me, because I'm living in a country where if you get cut by a knife in a kitchen, you get proper medical care. And the idea that I [would be] living in a country that's so poor that, for me or my kids, I can't afford to reach for proper care, it's such a terrible thing.”

On the exhibition website, a letter signed by the diseases themselves urges viewers to continue to ignore them. Gruber, however, says he hopes people will share the images and feel compelled to support the cause. I asked him what would be the most desirable outcome of the exhibition.

Photo: ČTK/Vít Šimánek
“If people start to talk about this, if people start to think about it, if people at least are aware that there is something fundamentally wrong in the research and development of the pharmaceutical industry. It's not about the pharmaceutical companies; by nature, they need to generate more income. But we have many other tools. And simply, it's wrong. It's wrong that the overall amount invested in research and development is decreasing in all of the pharmaceutical industry, and the level of investment into neglected diseases is less than 1% of all money invested into research and development. So for all the industry, these people are actually really neglected because they are not the true clients who will pay a hell of a lot for a new medication.”