24 April 2024

Drawing on her 'lifequake' of a cancer journey helps Canberra artist heal

| Sally Hopman
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Painting of woman holding her body

Tender, one of the works by Toni Hassan now on display in her exhibition, Trust Me, at the Canberra Contemporary Art Space, Manuka. Photo: Toni Hassan.

Some people hide themselves away when they’re diagnosed with cancer. They don’t tell those who love them or scream it out to the world.

Then there are women like Toni Hassan. The Canberra artist, who after being diagnosed with oesophageal cancer, decided every day she had was reason to be grateful. Although she now admits it was much easier said than done.

Diagnosed in January 2023, she started treatment two months later. Today, after six months of a punishing schedule, she is in remission.

She has chosen to tell her cancer journey, which she describes as a “lifequake”, through her art. Her exhibition Trust Me opened at the Canberra Contemporary Art Space, Manuka, on Thursday, 26 April.

A multimedia exhibition, Trust Me is not a “poor me” story. It is a positive tale of how one woman copes with what everyone else fears and how she uses her creativity. Or as Toni describes, it “explores the mental, physical and spiritual geography of a life-altering experience” when diagnosed and treated for oesophageal cancer at age 50.

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“From the moment I was diagnosed in January 2023, I began to notice the visual culture of hospital care and the surreal nature of the treatment,” the artist said.

“I had the hat-trick treatment: radiation, chemotherapy and surgery. My ability to eat was limited and I had a tube directly into my stomach for liquid meals. That made me question what it means to live.”

She decided to document the process, pledging to take photographs of all stages of the journey – but not images of someone sick lying in bed.

These photographs captured moments in time – from a chair she sat in to receive treatment to those hospital gowns used once and then thrown away.

“When you’re diagnosed with something like this, it rocks your very foundations,” she said.

“It forces on you fresh questions about your life, the universe and your role in it.

“It’s like paint being stripped. It challenges who you are and what you believe.”

Painting saying: I have been very lucky or should I say blessed

Regardless of being lucky or blessed – artist Toni Hassan is clearly a survivor. Photo: Toni Hassan.

Toni graduated with Honours in 2021 from the ANU School of Art and Design where she earned an Emerging Artist award and the Janet Wilkie Memorial Prize for Art History and Curatorship.

She said illustrating what she went through, via words and art, has helped.

“That’s the mixed blessing of illness, it provokes us to ask the big and important questions but it’s also wonderfully grounding.”

She said receiving good advice from a physician friend early on in the process helped.

That advice: “Trust and be sanguine that things will go well but keep asking questions… keep the communication open. Find a balance between what you do and what they do.”

Trust Me is now on at the Canberra Contemporary Art Space, Manuka, until 5 May. The free exhibition is open from 10 am to 6 pm, Tuesday to Sunday.

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