Rachel Gadsden's 'Unlimited Global Alchemy' is on show at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge until 21 August. Ann Young looks into other lives and finds her own experiences shining back.
The Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge, was the ideal venue to host Rachel Gadsden’s Unlimited Global Alchemy since this is where her journey began, inspired by Nondumiso Hlwele's Body-Map in a 2010 exhibition.
And this is where the alchemy bubbled up and spilled over, to reach around the world and touch the lives of Hlwele and the other artists belonging to the Bambanani artist-activist group in Khayelitsha Township, Cape Town. The artists came together for support over 11 years ago, many sharing common chronic health issues including HIV/Aids and tuberculosis.
At the launch, we were joined by two of the Bambanani artists, Nondumiso Hlwele and Thobani Ncapai. The work we were about to see was produced through a six-week residency which culminated in visual art, film, a catalogue and a separate performance piece to be premiered at the Southbank Centre in September.
The launch opened with a preview of three of the seven short films made by Gadsden with film makers Cliff Bestall and Deborah May. These were intimate conversations with the artists who seemed to speak directly to the audience. I was struck at how relaxed and open members of the Bambanani group and Gadsden were about their experiences of living with chronic health conditions. We watched people’s lives unfolding before us with such humour and strength but also a realism that resonated with my own experiences of living with a long-term condition.
As Thozama Ndevu says in her chapter: “When I am drawing I feel good. I am feeling very happy... If I start painting, even if I have stress and have no money, the days when I'm painting, I feel good, so good."
Watching the artists speak about their lives, I got a real sense of their cultural roots, their fears and dreams and a positive feeling that they had a future thanks to medical science. This was despite the widespread stigma surrounding HIV/Aids within their communities. Hlwele summed all this up in the question and answer session that followed when she said: “There is a strength when we are together [in the group] with disabled people, learning about different worlds.” It was evident that the impact of working with Gadsden had also had a profound effect on their lives.
On entering the visual exhibition space, I was instantly struck by the energy and fluidity of the work on display. Gadsden is an artist that will not be still or want her subjects to be still. The constancy of change, of positive affirmation, surrounded me and I was overwhelmed by the quantity and diversity of work. I suspect this was just a fraction of what was produced during the six-week residency.
The exhibition included huge collaborative pieces of work right down to small sketches, sketch books and portraits created by both Gadsden and the Bambanani artists. Many images shouted defiance and determination. Others told moving stories of pain and survival.
I loved the mixing of words and portraiture, which for me made these pieces extremely powerful. Bongiwa Mba’s poster, titled You Are a Survivor, cries out for disabled people to be proud. Her words, etched over her face say: “HIV is not a death sentence always remember that you are a survivor and never look down on yourself or let anyone underestimate you.” While another piece, Life Goes On by Thobani Ncapai, has the words: “I might be HIV Positive but life goes on.”
There was also a strong sense of family and faith which weaved its way through much of the work. Many of the Bambanani members had children and very supportive families which gave them a real determination to survive.
I was drawn to a small group of images which included Strong Man of Khayelitsha II by Gadsden because I was struck by its simple beauty and ability to convey the fragile nature of human existence, a theme that runs through much of Gadsden’s work.
It was a real privilege to attend this event and see the culmination of such a powerful residency led by Rachel Gadsden. I can only wonder at the planning and organisational skills it took to make the whole thing happen and I would urge people to go and see the work and become immersed in a world full of beauty and resilience.
This is a true celebration of the human spirit and what it means to be a disabled person in our world today.
The exhibition and film screening is at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge until 18 August 2012 and then moves to the Southbank Centre from 31 August – 9 September. There will be a bodymapping workshop on 3rd September 11.30 am – 1.30 p.m with Rachel Gadsden and the Bambanani Group open to all ages on a drop in basis
The catalogue is £16.99 and is available at the above venues and artsadmin.co.uk/bookshop.