Indiana Daily Student

Living positively through art

Musicians, sculptors and other artists address AIDS through work

Dr. Lilian Nabulime explains on  June 18, 2009 that her installation "Shattered Lives" illustrates the various ways that HIV/AIDS affects people's lives in Uganda.
Dr. Lilian Nabulime explains on June 18, 2009 that her installation "Shattered Lives" illustrates the various ways that HIV/AIDS affects people's lives in Uganda.

In the midst of a deadly virus that is often discussed in hushed, concerned tones, musicians, actors and artists are shouting and singing about living positively with HIV/AIDS. They are using the creative arts to educate, comfort and declare their status.

Last summer, artist Dr. Lilian Mary Nabulime opened the exhibit “Sculptural Expression: Women and HIV/AIDS” in Kampala, Uganda, with artwork that incorporated food items, baskets, soap sculptures and stone.

“Through art you can express your feelings, and through art you can touch other people’s lives,” she said. “People don’t necessarily have to be educated. Once the work object is there and if it is attractive, it draws in people and they start asking questions. As they are asking, the information is being passed on and they are also giving you ideas.” 

For a topic that is often taboo, she said her artwork was a means to discuss HIV/AIDS and enjoy the conversation. Her exhibit gave “strong messages which hit them right up so they see this is a destructive disease,” she said. In the end, both artists and audiences learn another way of approaching the virus.

Dr. Daniel Reed, associate professor of ethnomusicology, said artistic and medical responses to AIDS should not be separated in the African context. 

“People involve themselves in music and dance to such a great extent in daily life,” he said, “that if you can use that medium as a place to disseminate, it’s likely to have great effect and reach a lot of people.”

The “Wake Up! Africa” campaign based in Côte d’Ivoire,  used popular artistic forms to disseminate an educational message on HIV/AIDS to urban youth. Reed writes that the campaign used concerts, television and songs performed by major African artists to make a real impact on medical and cultural practices.

Many major international and local campaigns incorporate creativity into their mission, said Dr. Judah Cohen, assistant professor of ethnomusicology who is publishing a co-edited book on “The Culture of AIDS in Africa: Hope and Healing in Music and the Arts.” Education can help reduce stigma and make people realize that the virus impacts everyone in the society.

“This is a world in which you have people who are trying to express themselves, and AIDS is part of the landscape,” he said, explaining that photographers, musicians, playwrights, visual artists and even circuses address HIV/AIDS. “Health professionals are constantly partnering with musicians. This is a key part of what’s going on. To me, the conversation cannot be had without bringing these in.” 

Music also goes beyond education. Music and dance are used “as a means of living positively, finding empowerment and solace and hope and life, really, in this music-making,” Reed said. “It’s a means of finding salvation and hope in the midst of what could be defined as tragic circumstances.”

In Uganda, the TASO Mbarara Drama Group includes a vigorous dance at the end of  its shows to demonstrate how vital it is. The message is clear, Cohen said: “‘Here we are. We may be HIV positive, but we are like you and we also can be healthy. Look at us.’ Everyone who was in that group was HIV positive. They were able to show themselves as HIV positive, but living positively through this form of expression.”

The role of music and dance is not confined to Africa. In Trinidad and Tobago, graduate student David Lewis is researching how HIV/AIDS and the arts relate. He said that in prominent musicians’ lives and even deaths, a conversation about HIV is facilitated.

The popular calypso musician Merchant was one of the first artists in Trinidad and Tobago to reveal his HIV status, Lewis said. His 1999 death from AIDS helped to generate a public conversation about HIV and normalize the virus.

“I think to have some of these very public instances of people passing away from HIV,” Lewis says, “particularly calypso musicians ... for them, it might have made more impact on the general population. It broke the stereotype of who gets this disease.”

That stereotype was the one that Lilian Nabulime was trying to break with her exhibit in Uganda.

While each sculpture highlighted a different aspect of the disease — some showing its horrors and some showing the tender intimacy that is still needed — the exhibit as a whole was “frank, free and transparent,” as Gen. Elly Tumwine said in the opening ceremony. 

“What is here is not anywhere else in the world,” he said. “Art expresses what is far from everybody.”

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