Artwork by Nondumiso Hlwele

A new exhibition launching at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology explores the psychology and politics of living with HIV/AIDS in South Africa, where social stigmas meant that those suffering with the disease have had to campaign for work, education and life-prolonging drugs.

It’s a pleasure to be able to host work from a project initially conceived when an artist encountered a previous exhibition at this very Museum. It completes the circle.

Anita Herle

An extensive and vibrant body of artworks produced by a group of HIV/AIDS activists from Khayelitsha Township outside Cape Town and by lead artist Rachel Gadsden (UK) will go on display at the University Museum as part of Unlimited Global Alchemy, a project commissioned by the Unlimited scheme, which funded 29 ambitious projects by disabled artists to be presented as part of the London 2012 Festival. The exhibition runs from 23 June – 18 August.

The seeds of the project were originally sown at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in 2010, when UK artist Rachel Gadsden first clapped eyes on a ‘body-map’ painting by South African activist Nondumiso Hlwele, during the museum’s then exhibition Assembling Bodies. The startling work lays bare Hlwele’s attitude to her own body and the HIV infection within, mapping the disease but also the hope that antiretroviral (ARV) drugs bring.

Gadsden, who herself has a chronic illness - a form of brittle asthma that requires her to wear a syringe driver around the clock, releasing drugs into her body at regular intervals to survive - identified directly with the fragility and catharsis conveyed by the work, and the experience of being kept alive by medical intervention, which inspired her to track the artist down.

After a long search and with an award through the Unlimited scheme which forms part of the Cultural Olympiad and London 2012 Festival, Gadsden found herself in working in Khayelitsha Township with Hlwele and five other members of the Bambanani artist-activist group - and the project began for real. Over the course of six weeks in the autumn of last year a large number of drawings, sketchbooks and paintings were created, and a series of films, directed by Gadsden and made with filmmakers Deborah May and Cliff Bestall, which are an integral part of the exhibition.

“I’ve always believed, rightly or wrongly, that we’re all artists, but that we simply haven’t all had the opportunity to express ourselves through artistic processes,” said Gadsden.

During Thabo Mbeki’s time as President for much of the noughties, South Africa’s government was accused of being in denial of the AIDS epidemic - refusing to acknowledge the link between HIV and AIDS in a country where more than 5 million people are HIV-positive.

This meant that many were prohibited potentially life-saving treatment and access to ARVs, leading to a civil rights movement for those afflicted by HIV - with campaigners even taking the authorities to court to secure the right to treatment.

The work produced by Gadsden and the Bambanani activist group is fuelled by the politics and myths surrounding the chonic health issues they have all experienced – in particular HIV/AIDS – offering perspectives on what it means to experience disabling conditions, and to fight for life in the face of social taboos.

“I discovered that art could be used as a healing mechanism,” said Zodwa Somlayi, a member of the Bambanani. “Exploring this with others infected with HIV/AIDS provided a cathartic experience for me. I wish for all those infected to have the courage and support to disclose their status.”

The exhibition will be the first following the recent revamp of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA), which reopened last month after a major £1.8m redevelopment - including a front door onto the street for the first time in more than a century.

“I am thrilled to welcome Unlimited Global Alchemy to the Museum as its inaugural exhibition,” said Anita Herle, Curator at the MAA. “Heartfelt, irreverent and provocative, it vividly conveys the resilience of the human spirit and strength of social action in the face of adversity.”

“It’s a pleasure to be able to host work from a project initially conceived when an artist encountered a previous exhibition at this very Museum. It completes the circle.”

Following Cambridge, the exhibition moves to the Southbank Centre in London, with an exhibition in the Royal Festival Hall from 31 August – 9 September. In addition, a full-length performance created in response to the Cape Town residency - co-directed by Gadsden and choreographer Athina Vahla - premieres in the Purcell Room at the Southbank Centre on 5 September. This performance features the creation of visual art live on stage, sound, projections and dance.

22nd June also sees the launch of a specially commissioned catalogue book, edited by Andrew Mitchelson and designed by David Caines, which carries illustrations of artworks, a DVD of the films and texts including a foreword by acclaimed South African author Jonny Steinberg. This catalogue is available from the Museum bookshop and online here

Produced by Artsadmin, Unlimited Global Alchemy has been commissioned by the ‘Unlimited’ programme, part of the London 2012 Festival; presented in association with the Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology in Cambridge and transferring to  Southbank Centre during the Paralympic Games in September.

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