'Little Travellers' at the Durban Art Gallery
by Carol Brown
When one looks back at the art which was made about HIV/Aids in the early nineties, one detects particular things: there were calls for help, there was anger and desperation, and there were many works about death and memorialization. The exhibition 'Little Travellers' at the Durban Art Gallery, makes one realize how the visual expression of this pandemic has changed.
The early Aids-related art has been compared to work from the protest days in the decade preceding this, where posters, billboards and various other media utilised in aggressive attempts to combat an enemy: in the earlier days it was apartheid; when that this enemy fell, there was a definite sense that its face changed into Aids. Susan Sontag wrote about how the language which was used in the battle against cancer (describing people as cancer 'victims', the germs as 'invading' the body, the patient engaged in a 'fight' against it etc.) came into currency in the battle against Aids � her thesis being that both were seen as an invading enemy to be attacked. The language of which she wrote could also be transcribed into visual representations.
Looking at the exhibition of the 'Little Travelers' we see a different story being told. It is a story of people taking their lives into their own hands, triumphing over their illness and celebrating life. But who or what are the 'little travelers'? They are tiny little beaded dolls who are worn as lapel pins; perhaps they are best described as the second generation of the Aids ribbon, an image which will always be associated with the initial era of fight against Aids.
These pins were started at the Woza Moya ( isiZulu for 'come spirit') Craft Centre � an income-generating project of the Hillcrest Aids Centre Trust. This is an organization, close to the Valley of 1000 Hills near Durban, to which HIV-positive people come for assistance and support. The crafts project run by Paula Thomson has proven to be both a psychologically and economically empowering project. The women who participate in this project have found a renewed interest in life � the sense of solidarity gained through group work with people in similar situations has been important, along with the sense of worth gained through engaging in creative processes. Of course, the role of the income generated by this endeavour cannot be underestimated. The money from the beading has enabled many a meal to be put on the family table.
The 'little travelers' have achieved a life of their own mainly through the mythology which has been woven around them. While a volunteer at the centre, Ilan Schwartz from Toronto took a batch of these small works on a trip back to Canada: he sold them quicker than the legendary hot cakes and when the money came back into the centre the power and appeal of the project began to be recognized. The works were dubbed given their collective name 'little travelers' because they soon became taken to different countries by visiting tourists, academics and volunteers. And so began the symbolic journey of the little people � each one having its own personality. Each crafter has constructed her own characters. These include the sangoma and the rasta travelers by Joyce Mthethwa, the wedding travelers by Ntombi Dlamini, the Zulu and Masai Travellers by Thandiwe Chamane. Through this kind of curatorial attributing, the crafters are not put together as an amorphous group but individually acknowledged in the exhibition, each one having a large full colour poster with her portrait and her work. Other supporting documentation in the exhibition includes a large world map with the 'Little Traveller' pins being placed in the different areas to which they have been taken. All this adds to the myth-building, and gives a face and place to the objects.
The travelers have been extended into a more sculptural medium and the works on exhibition are being made on a larger scale in clay and beads thus allowing growth of the idea and a challenge to the makers to expand their capabilities. They are also becoming known in the fashion industry and Amanda Laird Cherry and Karen Monk Klijnstra have used them in various collections with great success.
Perhaps the most interesting section of the exhibition for me, however, was the photographs. Each crafter was given a camera to take a photo of where she lived, so that the story could be extended to the purchasers interested in the origins of the work. This process is a fairly established one internationally, especially among NGOs, and is beginning to make inroads into the discipline of visual anthropology. However, the eye of the beholder is no longer that of the person moving into a community but rather the community itself. These have produced varying quality of work but I found this project to have a strong visual appeal.
The exhibition (is this an exhibition within an exhibition? If so, please clarify this) called (after Gauguin's painting) 'Where do we come from? Who are we? Where are we going?' is a surprising one. The results are intimate and revealing views into the individual crafters' homes and lives � the photographers show their own environments without the intervening gaze of an outside photographer. There is an authenticity and a sense of beauty which has been captured in the majority of the photographs. It may be a sense of pride or a way of looking at oneself and one's surroundings with an understanding and honesty rather than an attempt at making a particular point i.e. about poverty, deprivation etc. The compositions are sharp and the capturing of intimate moments and places brings us right into the everyday lives of the photographers. We do not look at them with pity at their HIV-status but somehow get a window into their lives and environments. I hesitate to single any out because they are all such fascinating pictures of lives lived simply and with dignity. However, when selecting images for this review, out of about fifty, I unwittingly immediately chose 3 by the same person � K.H. Hlople who certainly demonstrates an acute sense of composition.
The entire project is a fascinating one, demonstrating the scope of work being done by this group of people and showing how income generation projects can, in fact, lead to further artistic discoveries.
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