Art and Therapy: Kiki Suárez Treats Mexico’s Disabled Through Art


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Kiki Suárez, a German-born artist and psychotherapist, stands among the artworks created by students and patients. Suárez, who has been going blind for the last 10 years, now works with people with disabilities in her community. Adriana Alcázar González, GPJ Mexico

As retinitis pigmentosa slowly erodes her sight, German-born painter and psychotherapist Kiki Suárez has worked to bring the therapeutic benefits of art to disabled persons in Chiapas, Mexico. Now, their artwork pays for some of the care and treatment of the patients.

SAN CRISTÓBAL DE LAS CASAS, MEXICO — Incense fills the air where Kiki Suárez works, which is part gallery and part therapy space.

Suárez, 66, is a German-born psychotherapist and an internationally renowned artist. Building and sharing beautiful spaces have long been part of her mission, she says.

But for the last 10 years, as Suárez has slowly lost her sight to retinitis pigmentosa, her focus has become art therapy for members of her community.

Today, she surrounds herself – and her patients – with intensely colored paintings and the smiling faces of boys and girls. A soft rug with fluffy pillows is the centerpiece of the art-therapy space where patients sit and share every day. Dozens of individual clients come to Suárez to receive therapy, and another 50 people take part in her self-help groups that use art as therapy.

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Guests browse student artworks at Suárez’s studio. All proceeds go to pay for care for her patients.

Adriana Alcázar González, GPJ Mexico

Even though she doesn’t paint her now-famous scenes of Mexico anymore, her life was changed by coming to this country.

“Getting to Mexico broke many of my preconceived ideas on life,” she says. “I questioned everything that I was and I became open to everything I had to learn.”

Kiki Suárez, who was born Irene Elisabeth Oberstenfeld in Hamburg, Germany, came to Mexico for the first time in 1977. When she married Mexican photographer Gabriel Suárez in the late 70s, they made their home in San Cristóbal de Las Casas, a city in Mexico’s southernmost state, Chiapas.

In the early days, she didn’t speak Spanish, leaving her depressed and unable to connect with patients or a wider social circle. Her depression was cured by painting, she says.

“Part of my cure was to start painting, and I was not a painter, but when I painted, my depression went away,” she says. “I could paint the world that I wanted – a house in a tree, a woman flying. I realized that, when painting, I became a goddess.”

And that became the gift she wanted to pass on to her patients.

An art-therapy group, aptly called Grupo Visión, gathers 30 families to make art and raise awareness about the plight of people with disabilities in Chiapas.

“I have found a great ally in Kiki Suárez and the vision group,” says María Isabel Cantú, 38, whose 5-year-old son, Santiago, was born with Morsier syndrome, a genetic disorder that leaves the optic nerve underdeveloped.

“The vision group has allowed us to exchange pains [and] uncertainties among us but also joys and hopes,” she says.

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Artwork made by students is sold at an auction to help pay for innovative new therapies for her patients’ disabilities.

Adriana Alcázar González, GPJ Mexico

Elizabeth Patricia Pérez, a local psychologist, works with Suárez to manage the group.

“The call was simple. Kiki invited everyone who lived with a disability to come together to start a group where everyone was welcome,” she says of the radio ads and community announcements that Suárez made as her own vision was declining.

Today, the group has weekly therapy sessions and hosts an annual auction to raise money for the care and treatment of group members.

“The auction organized by Kiki allows children like Santiago to have access to alternative therapies, such as equine therapy, or access to their prosthetic eyepieces or even to buy diapers,” Cantú says.

Elia Gran, GPJ, translated this article from Spanish.

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