Turning illness into art

South Africa's creative community is leading the charge to end the culture of denial and abstraction surrounding AIDS

Trends

October 23, 2005|BY STEPHANIE HANES | BY STEPHANIE HANES,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

In South Africa, AIDS is everywhere. It is in the red ribbons printed on street signs, the condoms distributed at every hotel, the shack cities where thousands are dying.

Glossy women's magazines print articles about "What to do if your child minder is HIV-positive." Companies struggle to provide health insurance to a work force likely to die young. United Nations statistics show more HIV-positive people here - an estimated 5 million in a country of 44 million - than anywhere else in the world. AIDS is everywhere, but also nowhere. Despite the constant references, it has become an abstract monster, its face hidden by stigma and denial.

People do not die of AIDS in South Africa, according to their death certificates. They die of tuberculosis, meningitis, or some other opportunistic infection that comes when the body's immune system is weakened. They rarely have AIDS; they are simply "sick." The epidemic is not personal.

Many of the books that have been written about the disease are equally remote, somehow missing the horror in their academic descriptions of misery.

Go to Amazon.com, type in "AIDS" and "Southern Africa," and hundreds of books will appear on the computer screen. But most deal with statistics or social indicators, United Nations reports or scientific debates. The titles start to blend together; books with predictable reports of African woe, with familiar pictures of emaciated black people lying in darkened huts.

But recently, southern African artists and writers have started trying to make AIDS tangible. They are creating HIVpositive characters who are recognizable and surprising, different from one another and believable. Their AIDS patients are not unseen "others" but serious businesswomen, matter-of-fact prostitutes, uneducated truckers who fall in love. These artists address the disease directly, and, in their poetry, fiction, paintings and memoirs, challenge the stigma.

In his 2004 poem "Nobody Ever Said AIDS," Eddie Vulani Maluleke wrote:

We all died

Coughed and died

We died of TB

That was us

Whispering it at funerals

Because nobody ever said AIDS.

It is impossible to say how much this new genre, AIDS art and literature, is changing attitudes here. It may well be that other social shifts - increased drug treatment, for instance, and new government acknowledgement of the disease - will have more effect than any book. But AIDS literature is unabashed in its effort to raise consciousness about the virus, in the same way that 20th-century antiapartheid writing was often explicit in its efforts to show the evils of that racially repressive system.

Artist Sam Nhlengethwa, for instance, paints miners, a group disproportionately affected by the virus, with red AIDS ribbons attached to their front pockets. In an exhibit at Wellesley College near Boston he wrote about the importance of informing these generally uneducated workers about AIDS through various forums.

Two new memoirs, by South African journalist Adam Levin and Supreme Court of Appeals justice Edwin Cameron, describe personal battles with AIDS. Although neither Levin nor Cameron is typical of the health crisis here - both men are white and gay, as opposed to the black heterosexuals who are most often sufferers of the virus - both published their stories in hopes of helping other sufferers come forward, and as a way to raise consciousness about the disease.

"For all the statistics I'd been bombarded with, I'd had no idea what AIDS was really like," Levin writes in Aidsafari: A Memoir of My Journey With Aids. "I'd been so convinced that with modern medical advances I would simply pop a cocktail and continue to live a normal life that it had never occurred to me how much pain and illness was involved. Nobody around me had any clue either. Perhaps I should publish all my scribblings someday, I figured. Perhaps, in some tiny way, it could be useful."

With their mission statements so clear, one might argue whether these new AIDS works are propaganda, as opposed to some higher ideal of art. If propaganda is, as the Merriam- Webster's dictionary suggests, "the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person," it is hard to argue that these AIDS pieces do not fit into that category.

But many of the works are not propaganda as the popular view would describe it - something shallow and dishonestly onesided.

As Michael Chapman points out in his comprehensive 2003 Southern African Literatures, artistic inspiration in southern Africa has long blossomed from political and social struggle. These works fall across a spectrum, but one could argue that writings ranging from the simply written memoirs of antiapartheid freedom fighters to Alan Paton's Cry the Beloved Country are all works of propaganda.

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