SUE VALENTINE: The response to HIV and AIDS takes many forms. Memory boxes, memory books and body-mapping are creative vehicles through which people living with HIV are telling their stories. Body maps are life-size outlines of an individual’s body, illustrated with symbols that depict the person’s past and present. A collection of these stories and images has been published in a book called Long Life a title deliberately chosen by the contributors who are focused on life rather than death. Nondumiso Hlwele is one of the artists and contributors to the book.
NONDUMISO HLWELE: Okay, this is my body map, here in my body map these lungs on the right they’ve got a white colour. I had TB when I was first diagnosed with HIV. And then around my body there’s dark marks, I had a skin problem, my skin was itching and it was peeling, it left dark marks on my body. And then around my body there are dots – a red circle, a blue circle and a white circle. The blue one is the HIV, the red circle, very big around the HIV is antiretrovirals the white circle is the blood. So the antiretrovirals are fighting the virus in my body, it breaks it down to smaller pieces. Also in my body map there’s a symbol of power. When you’re doing this drawaing they ask you what part of your body do you use all the time to keep you going. I say my brain, I do a lot of my thinking in my brain. So this symbol is a rainbow. At the end there is a bowl of hearts. At the top of the rainbow there’s a sun with the bible. My symbol says that we are a whole big nation even if we are infected with HIV. At the end we have to love one other, even if we have our differences.
SV: Nondumiso is employed in the outreach unit of the Memory Box project at the University of Cape Town’s AIDS and Society Research Unit. Just three years ago, she was desperately ill with a CD4 count of one, but through acceptance onto the antiretroviral treatment programme at Nolungile clinic in Khayelitsha she is now healthy and actively pursuing her artistic talents.
HLWELE: For example I’ve made a painting of Thabo Mbeki. I’ve seen there’s a lot of pictures of Thabo Mbeki because there’s going to be a vote now. As an HIV positive person I thought, let me put it on because some people say they are not going to vote because he’s been ignoring people of HIV, but to vote you want your voice to be heard and it’s the right thing to do.
SV: A picture Nondumiso saw in New York at the international launch of the ‘Long Life’ book in December inspired another drawing.
HLWELE : This one is a face of a woman, they say it’s the cry of a woman, but I change it and say it’s a cry of a woman who lost a child who died of HIV related illnesses. I’ve said to myself this mother is crying for the child because the child died of HIV, the child was born with HIV. I hoped if the treatment was there sooner or the government would have allowed people to use them or opened doors for people to make choices to take treatment, the child would still be alive. In my eyes I see that a lot of people have died of HIV and many mothers have cried over their children because they’ve died of HIV and also that woman, when I saw it in New York those tears, they were faces of people who died. It came to my mind you could put ribbons on those faces and that resemble South Africa, because the mothers, the black mothers they’re the one who cry most because their children die of HIV.
SV: Nondumiso’s art is now focused on other people, but she says the process of creating one’s own body map and documenting her life story was invaluable.
HLWELE: It is great because it takes you back when you were a child. You have to put in things that happened in your childhood. There are those things make you what you are today. Then, say you made mistakese in your life you have now to say now I’m planning for my future, my future is going to be like this. Look after yourself and dream. Because you cannot make it without any dreams if you’re just in this world, you have to be a dreamer.
E-mail Sue Valentine
Artworks explore life with HIV