Activists use art to remind leaders of devastation caused by AIDS
"Through Positive Eyes" is one of two HIV/AIDS art projects Professor David Gere and the UCLA Art and Global Health Center have brought to Washington, D.C., this summer. Supplied with cameras, 12 people living with HIV/AIDS in the nation's capital participated in an intensive photography workshop. Their photos and stories are featured in the video above to show others how they live with this disease.
Leaders in the fields of medicine, diplomacy, politics, philanthropy and entertainment are gathering in Washington, D.C., for Sunday’s opening of the 19thInternational AIDS conference, an event that has not been held in this country for 22 years, ever since the government banned internationals living with HIV and AIDS from entering the U.S.
With the recent lifting of this ban by President Obama, the conference, the premier meeting of scientists, policymakers and others working in the field of HIV, will be the setting where UCLA AIDS activists will remind participants and visitors, through art, that, despite medical advances, the devastation the epidemic has caused worldwide still exists and that those living with HIV/AIDS still face unequal access to lifesaving medication.
David Gere, a leading AIDS activist and UCLA professor, uses the power of art to to emphasize that human suffering from HIV/AIDS still rages.
Before the opening ceremony, participants at the conference will watch a seven-minute documentary on a project that David Gere, professor of world arts and cultures, has helped direct, together with award-winning photographer Gideon Mendel. Gere is a leading AIDS activist who heads the UCLA Art and Global Health Center.
"Through Positive Eyes," the subject of the documentary which Gere and Mendel directed, enables individuals to see HIV/AIDS through the eyes of people living with the disease. The project puts cameras in the hands of people living with HIV/AIDS, who can then document their lives. Featured in videos and exhibits, their photos and stories illustrate key themes: the stigma, the extreme social inequality and the struggle to obtain medication.
In prominent locations around the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, site of the conference, Gere and his staff are also placing artwork from The A.R.T. Show (Anti Retroviral Therapy), created by South African artists in response to the ongoing epidemic. The project was carried out with major funding from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.
"The big people who administer the world’s major AIDS organizations and agencies live in a swirl of deadening statistics — rates of infection, numbers of condoms distributed, cost of health care per citizen. Blah blah blah," said Gere in an email. "The works of art in The A.R.T. Show replace dry statistics with human-scale images, which have the capacity to resonate on multiple levels. You know how presidents like to call out real people and tell their stories during the State of the Union address? The artworks in The A.R.T. Show are like that, but better."
The UCLA activists then hope to leverage Twitter and the photo app Instagram to disseminate their call to action. Participants and visitors to the conference will be encouraged to take photos and post them — using hashtag #MakeArtStopAIDS — to share their experiences and expand the dialogue about the disease from the nation’s capital to the rest of the country and the world.
"Orphan Tower" illustrates the number of children from one South African village who have been orphaned by AIDS.
"There will be thousands of presentations at this AIDS conference, most soon forgotten," Gere said. "But good art is memorable."
One such piece being exhibited at The A.RT. Show, the "Orphan Tower" exemplifies that, he said. Made up of 634 small, beaded, cloth dolls crafted by five bead workers, the tower represents the 634 children from Dannhauser Village in South Africa who have been orphaned by AIDS.
"Once you’ve seen it," Gere said, "just try extracting the image of that orphan tower from your brain."
Two weeks ago in blistering heat, The A.R.T. Show was displayed at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the National Mall where thousands of visitors saw it, positioned next to the AIDS memorial quilt.
"I watched people gravitate to that curious eight-foot tower of little dolls," Gere said. "Who doesn’t love a miniature doll? But then, after a little explanation, the deeper meaning of the piece began to dawn on people. It sinks in, and expressions shift. Brows furrow. New understandings are internalized. I felt like I was witnessing a shift in awareness before my very eyes."
Washington, D.C., residents with HIV/AIDS participated in a workshop on using photography to document their lives.
At the same time the festival was going on, the Smithsonian collaborated with the UCLA Art and Global Health Center to put on a "Through Positive Eyes" workshop at the Hirshhorn Museum. Twelve D.C. residents living with HIV or AIDS participated in a 10-day intensive photography workshop, then documented their lives with cameras and recorded their thoughts about their personal journey.
The UCLA center has taken a smaller version of the initial exhibit, "Through Positive Eyes," to Los Angeles public schools, Gere said. It’s been funded by the Herb Ritts Foundation.
Through all these advocacy activities, the power of art shines through. "So I have a message for people in medicine and public health," Gere said, "including my good colleagues right here at UCLA: Invite artists to sit at the table with you. I promise you that something good will come of it."