Denial and the Dead: The AIDS Crisis in South Africa and the Artistic Response
Due mainly to inadequate surveillance techniques, South Africa was slow to recognise its emerging AIDS crisis. Once it became apparent, the nation's leaders -- Nelson Mandela included -- obfuscated and failed to act decisively. The longest serving post-apartheid president, Thabo Mbeki, in power between 1999 and 2008, shocked the international community by appointing HIV denialists to his Presidential AIDS Advisory Panel and for most of his term in office remained unconvinced that HIV caused AIDS. Accordingly, he failed to fund the implementation of anti-retroviral drug programs and instead appointed Manto Tshabala-Msimang as health minister, who touted lemons, garlic, beetroot, and olive oil as viable treatments. The result was spiralling levels of HIV infection. Over 1,000 people now die from AIDS in South Africa each day, and about 10% of the population is infected. There are more than 1.4 million 'AIDS orphans', and over 300,000 children living with HIV.
Unsurprisingly, this situation prompted a response by artists, often working in collaboration with activists such as Zackie Achmat, leader for the Treatment Action Campaign. Many had been engaged in the anti-apartheid struggle, and were well aware of the power of images and choreographed public statements to change public attitudes within and outside of the country. Artists, photographers and cartoonists such as Gideon Mandel, David Goldblatt, Jonathon Shapiro (aka Zapiro), Churchill Madikida, Clive van den Berg, Kim Berman, and Fiona Kirkwood became involved in advocacy work on behalf of people living with HIV/AIDS, political protest, and AIDS education. In a country where HIV denial reached the highest levels of government, where people living with AIDS were ostracised and discriminated against, and where some people continued to think that AIDS was spread by mosquitoes and could be cured by sex with a virgin, they had their work cut out. Art-based HIV-education and advocacy initiatives such as Art for Humanity's 'Break the Silence' billboard project, Body Mapping and the Memory Box project have also been important.
A number of public arts institutions also countered the government's position and popularised the cause of AIDS activists and artists. For example, the South African National Gallery (SANG), under the direction of Marilyn Martin, and the Durban Art Gallery, under the direction of Carol Brown, built considerable permanent collections of AIDS-related works and since the mid-1990s have held numerous exhibitions centred on the AIDS crisis. The SANG in Cape Town was the first public building in South Africa to be ‘wrapped’ with a gigantic red ribbon on International AIDS Day in 1996. It took until 1999 before the parliament building could be ‘wrapped’, which is somewhat indicative of how the arts have led AIDS awareness and prevention efforts, while the government has lagged behind.
If using this information, please use the following citation:
Paul Sendziuk, 'Denial and the Dead: Artists Respond to the AIDS Crisis in South Africa', The Art of AIDS Prevention, www.aidsart.org; accessed <insert date>
'Untitled', digital print, 24" x 24", 1999. The image depicts Victoria Cobokana, housekeeper, in her employer's dining room with her son Sifiso and daughter Onica, Johannesburg, June 1999. Victoria died of AIDS 13 December 1999, Sifiso died of AIDS 12 January 2000, Onica died of AIDS in May 2000.