AIDS Vancouver logoThis post is the first in the “Creating Change Series” by Tasha A Riley, PhD-Prevention Education Coordinator, AIDS Vancouver. This series will discuss links between art and HIV education by highlighting the contributions of various artists to the field of HIV/AIDS education and activism.

Sue Williamson - Adeline, 2000
"Adeline", By Sue Williamson, 2000 | Part of the Artists International Direct Support portfolio, produced by Art for AIDS International

In 2001 I had the unique opportunity to work as a volunteer in Botswana, Africa where I educated local teachers about HIV/AIDS issues so that they could bring back the information into their own communities in their own languages. One of the things I really appreciated about the work I did was the creativity my teachers passed on into their teachings. HIV/AIDS is a difficult issue to discuss because it touches upon some of the most taboo of topics.

People don’t always feel comfortable discussing sex or condom use. In some places, such as Botswana, speaking openly about sex and condoms to one’s Elders can be viewed as a sign of disrespect unless the educator is able to do so in a skilled and creative manner. The teachers I had the privilege of working with were particularly skilled in this area. They recognized that not everyone would be as open to speaking about HIV openly and so they worked together to figure out how to pass on information about how the virus was spread in a way that would not only educate but entertain. There was no end to the creativity these teachers brought to the table. One group of teachers created a series of small skits they would perform weekly in the streets where the central character was a women living with the HIV virus. Another group of teachers put together a beauty contest to raise funds for HIV education.You can imagine the audience’s surprise when each one of the contestants twirled gracefully around on stage only to reveal a sign displaying a different sexually transmitted infection. At the end of the procession, each contestant took centre stage and took some time to inform the audience about that particular STI, what it was and how it could be prevented and treated. The idea was brilliant simply because it not only grabbed everyone’s attention, but it did so in a way that encouraged people to laugh and speak openly about something people were normally too embarrassed to discuss.

Another group of teachers I worked with worked together to create a beautiful mural that depicted a day in the life of someone living with HIV. The mural was effective not only because it was visually stimulating but also because it transcended the barriers of literacy. Every month our organization would receive new booklets and pamphlets sent to us from Europe to pass out to people on the street. While the intention behind the pamphlets was well-meaning, the reality was that not everyone we worked with knew how to read the information provided within the pamphlet (and even if they did, many did not speak English as their first language). This mural was able to reach people who did not read and who did not speak English.  Everyone who passed by had the opportunity to enjoy interpreting what was going on in the drawing. It was powerful not only because it was beautiful but it also inspired  people to talk about HIV. This is the beauty and power of HIV education through visual art. This was also the inspiration behind the workshop I facilitated for UBC Continuing Studies at UBC Robson Square during Vancouver’s November Red Ribbon Month Campaign. [Video from this workshop is including following the post]

During this presentation I wanted to showcase a number of the artists I had seen or read about who have used their artistic talents to promote awareness about HIV/AIDS issues. I also wanted to take the opportunity to illuminate the success various art organizations such as “Art for AIDS International” that have used visual arts as a tool to promote awareness and fundraise on behalf of other organizations working on social issues related to HIV/AIDS .

As I did my research, I was overwhelmed by the number of artists who had been inspired to create as a way to instigate dialogue around the complexity of the disease that had taken the lives of so many friends and loved ones. Their works inspire in a way that the written word cannot.

I thought it fitting, therefore, to put together a small series for the Art for AIDS International blog that highlights the incredible work and accomplishments of some of these artists. Over the next few weeks the “Creating Change” series will feature individual stories and works of art by a diverse community of artists, educators, and activists that each exemplify the ways in which art is not only important as a pedagogical tool, but as a tool to generate awareness and create change.

Mapping the Body Workshop, Exploring HIV Through Art by Tasha Riley of AIDS Vancouver

The workshop originally took place Nov 16, 2010, during the We Care Red Ribbon Campaign in collaboration with the University of British Columbia Continuing Studies in downtown Vancouver.