In 2016 Katlego Rasebitse, asked MoVE collaborators to assist the facilitation of a quilt-making process for an advocacy project. With the help of Katlego and Greta Schuler, Elsa Oliveira and I facilitated that workshop. In a previous blog post, titled Notes on Stitching Our HIV Stories: Actvist Quilts, I documented the entire project. This blog post recompiles, draws from, and expands on ideas of exhibition identified in that blog post.
Two exhibitions, and two conferences
The four quilts were destined for, and were first exhibited at the 21st International AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa in July 2016. These quilts were part of a much larger exhibition with quilts coming from across South Africa, and from different organisations. The quilts were placed in general public areas so that a wide variety of people would have access to their messages. The UNAIDS website reported on the AIDS Quilt Project during the conference proceedings, and wrote the following:
Quilts of various sizes, colours and shapes ripple like waves by the various entrances to the Durban International Conference Centre, hosting the 21st International AIDS Conference. Laid out or hung up, inscriptions vary from “Empower together we shall win” to “Positive link.” The AIDS Quilt Project is back in South Africa telling the story of the journey from Durban 2000—the last time the AIDS conference took place in the city—to Durban 2016.
Although the four Sisonke Gauteng quilts were made for the AIDS 2016 conference, we knew that we wanted to exhibit them in Johannesburg, at the Workers Museum. We wanted to bring the quilts back to the city in which they were made. A few months after AIDS 2016, in November 2016, the MoVE Project held the exhibition and a symposium at the Workers Museum. The event was called Stitching My (HIV) Story: HIV/AIDS Quilt Timeline Exhibition and Arts-Based Methods Symposium.
Exhibition documentation (2016) Some photographs of the the exhibition, including two in which Katlego Rasebitse is guiding exhibition visitors through the story told by the quilts, Stitching our [HIV] Stories: Activist Quilts by Sisonke Sex Workers.
The exhibition was also intended to function as a visual component of an ACMS conference. The exhibition coincided with an arts methods conference: the third meeting series focused on arts based research a partnership between the ACMS and Coventry University, UK (#artsmethods). The symposium had an academic audience, and would provide conference members opportunities to discuss ideas related to arts-based methods, a range of arts-based storytelling techniques, public health, advocacy, and the links between advocacy and social research. The exhibition, however, also had to stand on its own, apart from the symposium. We wanted a broader public to be able to engage with the messaging of the work.
Exhibition as a discursive public space inside the gallery
To be able engage a broader public, however, the exhibition (and therefore conference) venue was critical. The Workers Museum was an important partner in the success of this exhibition. This museum, located in the middle of the Johannesburg CBD, and housed in an old mining hostel, is focussed on a range of issues linked to migration, labour, and equitable access to services. We believe that exhibiting the quilts at the Workers Museum provided important contemporary, and historical, context and resonance with the work and ideas that we aim to share and discuss within the MoVE Project, and within Sisonke. We believed that the general target audience of the museum would be interested in the content of the exhibition.
We designed the exhibition as an advocacy exhibition: it had a strong, clear message which could support the work done by Sisonke, and it was educational in tone as much as a celebratory. Although the exhibition was focussed on the quilts, we also had a range of other relevant information sources to supplement and extend the messages of the quilts: we used relevant zines from the Sex Worker Zine Project, a newsletter from Izwi Lethu Project which reported on the AIDS 2016 conference, and informational pamphlets from various health organisations and clinics. The exhibition was designed to contribute to increasing awareness on issues relating to migration, labour, gender, health, and sexuality, but specifically in terms HIV and AIDS, and sex work.
The HIV/AIDS Quilt Timeline exhibition offered exhibition visitors opportunities to learn about migration, sex work, HIV and AIDS, the law, activism, and people’s lived stories. We conducted a small anonymous survey with exhibition visitors. People seemed to have enjoyed the artwork, the learning materials, and the personal stories.
The exhibition produced a range of sometimes conflicting emotions in people: people were inspired and thoughtful, sad and angry, thankful and happy, upset and excited. While exhibition visitors responded in a variety of ways, I have learnt that people, for the most part, appreciated the information, and the personal stories, delivered through the artworks and the educational materials. One surveyee, however, suggested more detailed and in depth educational materials, and details about the projects conducted with sex workers.
This level of interest by the public in this exhibition was great, and because the quilts were used as an element within a larger advocacy movement. This goes to show how academic work can communicate in ways that make sense and are valuable to the interests of broader non-academic society. While the quilts were focussed on personalised advocacy messages, and on specific educational materials, they functioned within an advocacy orientated assemblage produced by a range of organisations, people and places. While advocacy style exhibitions may not be the only type of exhibition of interest for researchers, or visiting publics, this focus made the work accessible, and interesting, to a the people who visited the Workers Museum.
Exhibition as a discursive public space independent of the gallery
The notion of exhibition can, and in this line of arts-based work, should, include displays or demonstarations beyond gallery based work. An exhibition can incude a wide variety of public engagements where something that is worked or proposed is shown.
The quilts, for instance, have been used various events such as marches and protests, but also meetings. These events could be seen as exhibition in a broader sense: as showing; displaying; presenting; showcasing; and so forth. The details of these events, organised by Sisonke, are currently unknown to me, but were related to Sisonke’s ongoing advocacy work in the fight for the decriminalisation of sex work. These quilts, as banners, are highly visible, and interesting to people. People can interpret a story regarding HIV and AIDS by reading the banners, but the banners can also start conversations between people around issues.
Arts-based methods, and the artifacts/performances created through these methods, allow for emergent interaction and exploration. They create moments between people in the world. It is not possible at the beginning of projects, however, to predict what the all the outcomes of projects may be. It can also be impossible to list all of its outcomes after the project is completed. Many outcomes occur through the interaction of the participants-facilitators, or in an interaction between a viewer-participant with an artwork or event. While some outcomes can be measured, some may always remain quite ephemeral. In this project, for instance, we knew that we would have quilts, but we had no idea what stories would be told through the quilts, or to which events Sisonke members would take them, and what conversations they may have sparked. I am convinced that arts-based methods can help to deliver powerful messages to public audiences when these methods, and the artifacts and events they produce, are employed in well-considered, and rigorous ways.
AIDS 2016. (2017). The AIDS Quilt Project: A celebration of South Africans. [online] Available at: http://www.aids2016.org/Media-Centre/The-Latest/Blog/ArticleID/45/The-AIDS-Quilt-Project-A-celebration-of-South-Africans [Accessed 20 Aug. 2017].