In Teresa Chlapowski's Where I Go Alone a transparent door frames the image of a dark, solitary figure, his back to us, shoulders drooped, all of it suspended in infused glass of beautiful watery tones — sea greens, blues, aquamarine.
"There's a Polish saying," the artist explains, "'Where the King walks on foot': the only place he is allowed to go on his own and is not attended by his servants is the toilet! If only those without the luxury of sanitation could have that privacy."
Clive Patterson's cheekily titled Water-Loo features a jumble of blue outdoor loos, all topsy-turvy — the kind you patiently wait to use at any music festival, Pemberton's or otherwise. Mounted on the surface of the acrylic painting is the interactive bit: a real-time roll of toilet paper.
Enrico Gobbi's Light Douchepan is part steampunk lamp, part homage to Marcel Duchamp's famous Fountain, the upside-down urinal that kicked off ready-mades as art and turned the art world equally upside. The light actually works, reminding us of those who can't actually use a toilet.
Illuminating the crisis of the 2.4 billion people who have no access to improved sanitation, including the one billion who have to defecate in the open, is the point of all these artworks. They're but a sampling of the witty, provocative entries in Nude Tin Can Gallery's "Don't Forget to Flush" art competition to celebrate World Toilet Day. (You can check out the submissions and vote for your favourite here: www.nudetincan.com
Held every Nov. 19, World Toilet Day is a UN-Water initiative to build awareness and take action to improve sanitation and health. After all, as any good world traveller likely knows first-hand, lack of access to clean drinking water and sanitation, along with the absence of good hygiene practices, are among the underlying causes of poor nutrition and poor health. Women, children, the elderly and the weak are impacted the most worldwide, with millions suffering or even dying.
"Don't Forget to Flush," which includes a children's exhibition that attracted more than 140 entries, is the brainchild of Nude Tin Can Gallery owner, Samantha De Barnard.
"It raises awareness and it's something different for us, so it's been a great thing," says Samantha by phone from the gallery, which is located in St. Albans just north of London, and has only been open six months. "It's something a bit quirky — something not many people are aware of or think about.
"Some people have just come into the gallery for the first time, so we have to capture them on the way out and explain that we don't only do exhibitions about toilets and explain what World Toilet Day is about because peoples first reaction is, 'Oh, what's that then?'
"But we tell them what we know from UN-Water and Toilet Twinning without getting too graphic. We keep it as brief as we can: It's about sanitation, and girls who can't go to school because there are no toilets in certain countries, and kids get sick. And they sort of perk up a little bit — they get it."
Indeed, those of us lucky enough to live in countries like Canada and the U.K. can barely imagine what it's like not having a clean toilet to use regularly, despite the fact that clean drinking water and access to good sanitation are considered basic human rights.
According to UN statistics, about 340,000 children alone die each year due to diarrhoeal diseases. That's about 1,000 kids dying every day from entrenched practices like open defecation, which means using fields, bushes or bodies of water.
Scientists now link such practices to childhood stunting. In India, where UNICEF has launched its "Take the Poo to the Loo" campaign, about half the population — nearly 600 million people — practice open defecation. The country also has a high level of children who suffer from stunting.
"The challenge of open defecation is one of both equity and dignity, and very often of safety as well, particularly for women and girls," says Sanjay Wijesekera, head of UNICEF's global water, sanitation and hygiene programs in a UNICEF press release.
"They have to wait until dark to relieve themselves, putting them in danger of attack, and worse, as we have seen recently."
In May, the hanging of two teenage girls in Uttar Pradesh who had gone out after dark to defecate caused international shock and dismay, and highlighted the security issues involved in open defecation.
Eighty-two per cent of the one billion people practising open defecation live in just nine countries besides India: Indonesia, Pakistan, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Sudan, Niger, Nepal, China, and Mozambique. Despite efforts to the contrary, the number of people practising open defecation is still rising in 26 countries in sub-Saharan Africa. In Nigeria, a particularly disappointing trend stands out: The number of open defecators has nearly doubled, increasing from 23 million in 1990 to 39 million in 2012.
Since improvements to sanitation worldwide is happening so slowly, initiatives that capture the imagination and have a bit of fun are critical to raising both awareness and funding. To tackle the problem, some have joined forces with international groups that have a longer reach
For instance, Nude Tin Can Gallery aligned with Toilet Twinning, (http://nudetincan.com/index.php before Nov.21.) where you can "twin" your loo with a new toilet somewhere else in the world that really needs it. About $120 twins your toilet with a single latrine while about $240 twins it with a block of toilets for a school.
Other World Toilet Day boosters include Portland, Oregon's PHLUSH (Public Hygiene Lets Us Stay Human), which has launched a downloadable toolkit (http://toolkit.phlush.org) to help provide and maintain excellent public toilets.
"We feel comfortable and welcome in places where it's easy to find public facilities," says PHLUSH's website, which sports their logo of the familiar "men's" and "women's" symbols, only with their legs crossed. This is a growing issue even in so-called developed countries like Canada, where aging populations with increasing health challenges have to plan their outings around where public washrooms — good clean public washrooms — are located.
Cheeky art, useful toolkits, fundraisers, you name it — next time you settle in for a comfy session on your own private throne, think about it: What could you do for next year's World Toilet Day to help flush away some of the daunting challenges others face?
Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who loves the twinning of toilets and art.