Artist Marion Wassenaar and scientist Tanya Major explored the effects caused by gout arthritis by creating an interesting piece of art called Ties that Bind. An increasing number of (mainly) New Zealand Maori and Pacific Island men are affected, with South Auckland now regarded as “the gout capital of the world”.

People with gout arthritis must deal with the physical pain and disability of gout attacks, whilst also being confronted with feelings of self-blame and shame for their gout diagnosis, which is reinforced by the lack of understanding from the public, who see gout as an easily avoidable condition associated with an indulgent lifestyle.

To highlight the issue of gout in our society, an art and genetics collaborative project in 2017 was an opportunity to engage with the community in a new, creative way and spread the message that gout arthritis is a genetic disease that can be treated.

Tanya’s role in the Merriman Laboratory (Department of Biochemistry) at the University of Otago is to help identify the specific genes that are associated with gout arthritis and share these findings with patients and the general public. Tanya’s aim is to understand how these genes cause gout arthritis, and how they might change a person’s symptoms or response to treatment, with the goal of improving the lives of people with gout arthritis.

Marion is an artist and lecturer at Otago Polytechnic’s Dunedin School of Art and teamed up with Tanya for the art and genetics project.

The artwork, Ties That Bind, addresses the notion of alienation stemming from the lack of understanding about gout that reflects a sympathetic and personal response to the research.

History of gout arthritis

Gout is a form of arthritis caused by a high concentration of urate in the blood. It is an ancient disease. The medical notes of Hippocrates (400 BC) described gout as a severely painful disease, which medicine had no hope of curing. His notes also mentioned the tendency for gout to affect only wealthy men, who had access to large amounts of rich food or alcohol, and that attacks often struck after a period of over-indulgence. By the sixteenth century gout had become firmly associated with riches and subsequently became known as the “disease of lords and lord of diseases.”

The present-day notion of gout arthritis reflects the idea that it is caused by overindulging in food or alcohol. This perception has led to a common feeling amongst patients that they should be ashamed of, or are being blamed for, their condition.

It’s in your genes

Gout arthritis is an inherited condition, which is primarily caused by a person’s genetic make-up. Someone with a family history of gout is twice as likely to develop gout compared to someone with no family history of gout arthritis. Researchers such as Tanya are keen to dispel the negative stereotype of gout and to raise awareness of the uncontrollable genetic factors that contribute to gout, along with spreading the message that gout arthritis is treatable.

The research undertaken by Tanya and her colleagues in the laboratory has come a long way in recent years in identifying the specific genes that are associated with gout and in sharing these findings with gout patients and the general public. Tanya’s research focuses on searching all of a person’s genes / DNA data from over 2000 Māori / Pacific Island people and over 2000 European people from Aotearoa, New Zealand, to find more genes that influence gout arthritis. Her aim is to understand how these genes cause it, and how they might change a person’s symptoms or response to treatment.

The art and genetics project

Ties That Bind consists of four framed works which layer glass and transparent screen-printed images. Marion also produced giveaway printed posters which conveyed the message “GOUT IS IN YOUR GENES. Why DON’T we talk about it… why don’t WE talk about it,” to raise awareness of the causes and treatment options and reduce the burden it places on clients, their families, and communities in New Zealand.

Ties That Bind symbolises that while family ties are present within the repeating pattern of clasped hands between parent and child depicted in the background layer, alienation is expressed through repetition, layering, and separation, with the interruption of a crowd scene fractured within the work. Three layers of glass in each of the four framed works provide a surface in which to build up transparent screen-printed images of the crowd and the ominous gouty hand. The crowd scene conveys the potential for anyone to inherit the gout genes. Another screen-printed layer on the works illustrates the way large amounts of data are analysed by Tanya in her research.

This project allowed the use of art as a medium to spark conversation about gout and the artwork inspires sympathy and understanding.

Tanya Major is a postdoctoral fellow in the Merriman Research Group, studying the genetics of gout arthritis and related diseases.

Marion Wassenaar is an artist and lectures in the Print Studio at the Dunedin School of Art.


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