Art Activism in South Africa and the Ethics of Representation in a Time of AIDS

By Allen, Rika | Critical Arts, November 2009 | Go to article overview
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Art Activism in South Africa and the Ethics of Representation in a Time of AIDS

Allen, Rika, Critical Arts


In South Africa, art activism plays an important role in the fight against HIV/AIDS. During the past number of years the South African National Gallery (SANG) has staged several events where works of art were commissioned to respond to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The article discusses how the activist strategies of the SANG draw on two distinct traditions when combatting the AIDS epidemic by means of art. These two traditions are found in the SANG's legacy in the resistance art movement during the fight against apartheid, and in the resources of its networking strategies with the AIDS activist movement in general, and more specifically the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC).

The article explores the different roots of 'artworks against AIDS' and highlights its findings with short overviews of the SANG's exhibitions held between 2001 and 2007. The article also discusses how both the SANG and the TAC benefitted from the 'social movement spillover effect' (Epstein 1996), which enabled them to use their previous activist structures and resources in order to embark on the struggle against HIV/AIDS.

Although the art activist strategies are successful in getting the art world's attention to respond to the effects of HIV/AIDS, the article suggests that in light of the ever-changing landscape that characterises the epidemic, art activists are challenged to continually reinvent their strategies of engagement. Advances in treatment options play a significant role in shaping new meanings and forms of social mobilisation that influence the signifying practices driving activist strategies. The need for an 'ethics of representational practices' that is sensitive to changes in the landscape, offers art activists a renewed basis from which to act when engaging with the complexities of mediating the realities of people's lived experiences in the time of HIV/AIDS.

Keywords: activism, art against AIDS, ethics, HIV/AIDS, resistance art


This article will explore recent trends in art activist practices in South Africa, in response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Although the works of art themselves cannot be detached from the activist practices, the article will not focus on or engage with the visual strategies applied by the artists. Instead, the focus of the article will be on the strategies of signification (Treichler 1999: 4) that accompany and inform the works of art in their battle against the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The discussion is informed by the understanding that the process of producing and engaging in the practice of art activism is a different kind of practice than producing art for 'art's sake', which concerns itself only with aesthetic formalism and technical qualities (lines, angles, colours and texture). The basis for this distinction stems from the assumption that art's role in society is multi-functional, and that the 'historical, social, cultural, political and economic context within which the artwork is produced, partly contributes to the overall meaning' thereof (Oliver 2007: 60).

The above distinction becomes important when investigating the practice of art activism that engages with themes relating to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in South Africa. As this article will demonstrate, it is apparent that on the one hand, the notion of local art activism is inextricably linked with the protest or resistance art movement that emerged between 1960 and 1990 in apartheid South Africa. On the other hand, it is equally linked to the strategies and agendas of AIDS activist movements in general. Hence, the 'artworks against AIDS' movement is not only informed by issues pertaining to those that inform AIDS activism in general, but in South Africa the discourses of protest and resistance art still play an important role when planning and taking part in interventionist strategies. Although these strategies have proven to be effective in getting the art world involved in the struggle against HIV/AIDS, the article will present a speculative argument suggesting that alternative strategies are not to be overlooked.

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Art Activism in South Africa and the Ethics of Representation in a Time of AIDS


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