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Colin Hambrook blogs about a workshop with Rachel Gadsden and the Bambanani group, whose exhibition opens at the Royal Festival Hall today / 31 August 2012

abstract detail from portrait painting of a young woman's face, decorated with white spots by Rachel Gadsden

Painting by Rachel Gadsden of Bambanini artist Bongiwe Mba. Photo © Rachel Gadsden

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Unlimited Global Alchemy is opening today at the Southbank Centre, Level 2 Foyers at the Royal Festival Hall. The exhibition contains a body of drawings, paintings, sketchbooks and films by Rachel Gadsden and the six members of the Bambanani artist-activist group from Khayelitsha Township, South Africa.

I had the privilege of meeting three members of the group with Rachel at a presentation at DaDaFest yesterday at the Bluecoat in Liverpool. Films of Nondumiso Hlwele, Thobani Ncapai and Bongiwe Mba were shown to a small but engaged audience who were deeply touched by hearing the stories; registering the commonality of experience.

The main thing that came across to me was that despite the differences in culture between South Africa and the UK the actual issues of living with HIV on a daily basis are the same. We might have more laws, which attempts to counter discrimination, but the act of standing up and disclosing status as HIV Positive is an enormous step. And no amount of legislation can counter the struggles of living with the virus and taking anti-retro-viral medication on a daily basis.

The Bambanani groups' films are all powerful personal accounts of what the individuals have had to deal with, annotated with a profound message of hope. Nondumiso Hlwele was the original inspiration behind the group which was set up in 2001. She instigated using body mapping techniques with a range of groups in South Africa, as a form of therapy and education. It was these bold images that drew Rachel Gadsden to find out more about the stories of the group and to build an arts project to support their aspirations.

These remarkable portraits of what it feels like to be HIV positive were created specifically to counter a culture of denial. Thobani spoke eloquently in the presentation about the importance of disclosure: "I think in hiding what you have you are just killing yourself. When you share with others what you have, you create opportunities for living." But this is clearly not an easy route. In his film he highlights the struggles to get the government to support the possibility of having affordable ARV medication - and the numbers of people - especially men - who often pass away  because they are unable or unwilling to embrace the fact they have the virus.

In her film Bongiwe reveals her faith and the step she made to be open in her church, because she wanted the church to be part of move to counter discrimination against HIV. It is clear that many individuals are turned away by their families and communities. Being open and making artistic statements about what it feels like to be HIV positive, is a risk, but the reward of telling your story is about creating an opportunity for people to see you as whole human beings.

Nondimiso gave a fascinating account of the process of creating body maps - drawing two overlapping body outlines; and using bold marks and colour to express hopes and fears. She talked a little about working with NGOs like the Community Media Trust in South Africa and her hopes to do further research into creating links within a broader range of communities to reveal the impact of HIV as a disability. She talked further about learning more about stigma, after being invited to do a body map session with a gay and lesbian group. She is a passionate advocate for the need for different communities to understand each other better and create a legacy for the coming generations.

Talking further about the Unlimited Global Alchemy project she said: "It's a big lift to have the international relationship that working with Rachel has provided us. We are the first group in South Africa to use art to express ourselves as way of giving hope to others and the possibility of saving lives."

As for Rachel her main drive to build the collaboration came after a conscious decision 8 years ago that it was important to speak out; to be open about her own invisible impairment issues and the impact of disability on her artwork.

Speaking at DaDaFest she said: "all four of us are united through invisible disabilities and choosing to use creative expression to be open about disability. When I first saw the Bamanani groups body maps, they resonated. I realised we were connected by the fact that we wanted to be alive; that there was a commonality in the messages being conveyed through our artwork."

She spoke further about her journey in finding the confidence to make the collaboration happen. It came out of a desire to build a project focussing on human rights issues and building on a sense of universality, which has always been an important theme in her work: wanting to touch the artist in everyone: "I wanted to build a project that touched on global issues with a message that everybody matters and has a right to have their voice heard."

Her role was to facilitate the group as artists in offering new artistic techniques to a group who had little or no formal art education, and in so doing help to regenerate interest in the Bambanani's important programme of work.

The exhibition has been exhibited in Cambridge for two months and is opening in the Royal Festival Hall from today until 9 September.

As well as a body-mapping workshop led by Rachel and the Bambanani group which will take place on 3 September there will be live performance on 5 September. This will be co-directed by Rachel Gadsden and choreographed by Athina Vahla, featuring performers Freddie Opoku-Addaie and Sarah Chin.