Unlimited Global Alchemy (Image credit: Hamish Roberts)
UK visual artist Rachel Gadsden tells how her chance encounter with the work of an HIV-positive South African artist led her on a life-changing journey that culminated at Unlimited, a festival of new work by deaf and disabled artists during the Paralympic Games.
A chance encounter in June 2010 with a ‘body-map’ painting made by South African artist and activist Nondumiso Hlwele in Cambridge set me upon an incredible adventure. I identified directly with the fragility and hope depicted in the painting – the shared experience of being kept alive by medical intervention – and I was inspired to find this artist.
After a long search and upon receiving an Unlimited award, I at last was given the opportunity of exploring a shared humanity and artistic interest with Hlwele and five members of the Bambanani Group of artist-activists in South Africa.
I had tremendous support from Jean September, Deputy Director British Council South Africa, who worked as mentor and intermediary, and who first met with the group in Khayelitsha Township on my behalf. This was the start of the Unlimited Global Alchemy commission.
I arrived in South Africa in October 2011 to undertake a six-week collaborative residency in Muizenberg with six members of the Bambanani Group.
Fuelled by the politics and myths surrounding chronic health issues – in particular HIV/AIDS – the body of work we created offers visceral and often poetic perspectives on what it means to experience disabling conditions and to fight openly for life in the face of social taboos. At the heart of this life-affirming and timely collaboration is a celebration of survival against the odds.
Our lifestyles, on the face of it, couldn’t be more different; mine in a London suburb, the Bambanani in Khayelitsha Township. But through the process of making art together, we discovered that there is no insurmountable cultural divide. We created artworks with the purpose of conveying our personal narratives and, in the process of doing so, we explored the shared experiences surrounding our survival – a wholly empowering experience for all of us.
We created a large number of drawings, sketchbooks and paintings and a series of talking-head style filmic portraits, captured in the studio in Muizenburg and in Khayelitsha Township.
The Unlimited Global Alchemy commission is celebratory and upbeat, yet tackles big issues head-on: the politics of HIV/AIDS, living with chronic health conditions, and surviving against the odds.
It is timely and perhaps could only have succeeded in the atmosphere of a post-apartheid South Africa. It is about access to art in the broadest sense, about participation and about how art can bridge cultural and geographical divides.
This commission has many strands: visual art, films, performance, workshops, a comprehensive catalogue and talks. It has been exhibited at Sobeit Studio, Muizenberg; Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge; and finally at the Unlimited festival in London, which ran until the end of the Paralympic Games on 9 September.
Grasping the moment, I stood in front of Hwele’s painting in 2010, and at once embarked on a psychogeographical journey, inspired to reach out to the voice of the painting. And with the support of the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG), Arts Council and British Council, I travelled 5,979 miles and found a kindred spirit in South Africa. And in their turn, three members of the Bambanani Group travelled to the UK.
I am still catching my breath after what has been a most extraordinary two-year journey, none of which would have been possible without the support of the British Council – an organisation whose experience and contacts span so many cultures and countries, and who seem equipped to bring that experience to bear in a most practical way. I am most grateful to have been given this incredible opportunity.
There have been so many highlights, but perhaps the lasting elements will be the friendships I have made and the dialogues that have occurred. Oh, and the creation of the artwork! I know that, as my current exhaustion subsides, I will begin to reflect and celebrate what has without doubt been one of the moments of my life.
Rachel Gadsden herself is dependent upon a syringe-driver that every minute injects her with medication that keeps her lungs functioning. She too knows about the fight for survival, and ‘living in the second’ – themes which she came to explore through art with her new South African friends.