Cyrille Varet, president of Dessine l'Espoir, responds to Kendell Geers
Last month we ran a News story detailing the donation of an artwork by Kendell Geers to Dessine l'Espoir, a Paris-based HIV and Aids activism NGO. The work was subsequently censored by a UNESCO official from its intended display at the ART Paris fair, and then was lost when the vehicle in which it was being transported was stolen from outside the organisation's office. The work then cropped up on a Paris fleamarket where it was photographed. Only then did Geers learn the story of his donation. This month we run president of Dessine l'Espoir Cyrille Varet's response in the form of an open letter to Geers.
Dear Kendell Geers,
I found it easier to write directly to the website as my correspondence with you, that you consider 'public', will anyway be reported here. I just hope that this letter will be (fully) published, but I'm sure that 'censorship' does not exist in this publication.
I think that the article reporting your artwork 'censored and stolen in Paris', needs also an explanation from my side, as President of Dessine l'Espoir. I first would like to be precise that I assume this function as a total volunteer, I do care for HIVand Aids for very personal reasons, and I am not being paid for none of the work that I do for this association. Of course, this doesn't excuse the non-professionalism of which you accuse me, but I try to help as much as I can, with the time left to me, knowing that I also need to work aside from this, in order to live, eat and support my family.
So as I've already explained to you: we were invited by the ART PARIS fair and this exhibition was a collaboration with UNESCO. I've spent the whole day installing the exhibition at fair. We selected 15 artworks from the 60 that we gathered for the project, and your artwork was part of it. At some point, the representative from UNESCO came and saw your artwork amongst the others. She made her comment about it to one of our board members and myself, regarding your work, and the representation of women, in a campaign fighting stigma towards people affected by HIV and Aids. (She will write about it herself to you). Did she give a personal opinion (maybe she just didn't like your work) or an official censorship from this international institution? In any case, the exhibition, was co-organised by UNESCO, and we had to care about UNESCO opinion through its representative, so we decided not to show this artwork on this fair. So I returned the artwork to my car� and you know the rest of the story.
The car has been stolen, not more than five minutes after returning to my workshop, all doors locked, as someone stole my keys (the thief came and stole the keys inside our office, without any of the four people being there noticing) before I had time to even ask for help to unload the car, parked right in front of the workshop, in broad daylight. Your artwork was still in the car well protected, with our tools and empty cases and protections from the other artworks, but this was not the real motivation of the thief compared to a new combi.
The next step: your artwork being on sale for 300 Euros at the flea market and being recognised by one of your collectors. (I just wonder why he didn't buy it?). So you've contacted me with your first mail, so furious (and I understand it) until I gave you the explanations. Here again, I took on my personal free time, as it was my responsibility to do it, to go on the next Saturday and Sunday searching for your artwork on the market, in vain.
I would like to be precise that despite what was said in the previous article, we havenit removed the link to your artwork. Our entire website has been changed from html to php, and the pages's addresses have been modified. But we didn't find it necessary to inform anyone, (you said as one more instance of our unprofessionalism), because the website's address is still the same: www.designinghope.org
I also would like to react to your comments in your last mail, where you accuse us of considering artwork only as 'decorative', and you advise me to acquire 'more education in the knowledge of contemporary art'. I may not have the 'knowledge' that you are talking about, but I certainly do not consider contemporary art as 'decorative'. The purpose of the whole project is, indeed, based on the impact that an artwork can have on people affected by stigma. In fact, we asked the artists to create an arwork expressing the message: 'I Love You Positive or Negative', with the intention to get this work reproduced on awareness tools supporting this campaign.
To read more about this, I should refer you to our website with this link:
With the support of posters, we aim at introducing contemporary art to new environments in South Africa, in the heart of rural areas, townships, support groups, and clinics, targeting people usually not exposed to contemporary art. We like this openmindness and respect for people, whatever their social background might be, to truly believe that not only people who have a chance to visit art galleries, trendy exhibitions and the art collectors' world, or who have the 'knowledge of contemporary art' can benefit from it.
In conjunction with local support groups, we do use the artwork as a starting point for discussions about HIV, stigma and discrimination, and help members to express their pain and daily experiences.
These meetings are organised during support groups sessions for HIV+ patients, together with trained counsellors. Two volunteers and myself who recently went to South Africa and Swaziland to three different sites wrote reports on how these groups have reacted to the artworks, and this helped us a lot to select the work and associate it with a message that they come up with, in order to create for once a campaign that talks to them and resembles their experience. You would be amazed to hear comments on Elodie Lachaud's work, for instance that is one of their favourite. Generally, they reject the idea of death and want to be considered as fully alive with a future, and not sick individuals that are going to die. Ingrid Mwangi's work also, helped a lot to raise discussions about stigma, especially thanks to the text she attached to the work and that we translated into Zulu for the group members.
I strongly believe in the power of a visual (as well as I believe in the power of words), to change someone's life, or to relieve a pain, simply because I've experienced it myself, so I really don't consider an artwork as 'decorative'.
We do care about artists' views and comments about their art. I've invited you to express yourself on our website and explain your interpretation of the message of your work, as it was obviously not clear for every body.
Regarding the exhibitions that are another part of the project, some work will be exhibited locally (Johannesburg exhibition), internationally (coming exhibition gathering artwork from african artists), on international fairs, (when costs of shipping are not too high for the NGO's), and almost all artists understand, and accept this. They all are anyway exhibited on the website, as a recognition from the NGO of their contribution.
So, you deserve to get apologies from UNESCO, because you felt offended. I've already told you that they take this matter very seriously. You've already got mine, that you deserved also. But I think that in this story, I also deserve some kind of respect. And I don't take it that personally (even if you consider me ignorant of contemporary art, with no 'balls'), as in the name of the other dedicated people in our NGO, and our ongoing efforts to make change in the perception of HIV/Aids, especially in your country.
Well, I think that I've said all about this story and will now try to concentrate on other important matters. Our NGO runs very concrete and time-consuming projects that need constant attention. So please, understand that I'm not going to write any more about this, be it emails or articles on contemporary art websites. UNESCO will be in touch with you shortly. You even have the email adress of our contact there.
My energy to fight against gossip has limits. As I told you earlier, I do this job as a volunteer, I don't get from it any financial benefits, neither any kind of popularity. I enjoy it often, I feel discouraged sometimes. I'm proud of some the projects that I consider sucessful, and I do recognize it when I fail. Despite what happened, Artists4life is a success, from the artists' enthousiasm to the beneficients' interest, and the concrete outcome.
One more time, I personaly appreciate you as an artist, and like your vision of the role of art in society (as I read about you on the web, because I haven't met you). This is actually why I first thought we could contact you for this project, (apart from the fact that you are South African), beacause I thought in some ways, your vision goes in the same direction as ours.
With my best regards
Read Geers' letter to Dessine l'Espoir