Western visual paradigms are obsessed with the body. Annwen Bates asserts that in the imagery of the “Black African other” and HIV/AIDS, this translates into a mixture of “ghoulish fasincation and horror when confronted with the body’s demise”
“There are only two kinds of people in Africa: those infected with HIV, and those affected by it.”
These are the words of dedication in a booklet entitled Positive Health, which is filled with practical hints and tips for living with HIV. The dedication continues, “If you are infected, this book is for you. If you are not infected, this book is for a friend, a loved one or a colleague.” Even within our own ranks, we have become a continent defined by a virus.
This definition of Africa and Africans worries me, a lot. Partially because the reality is that many people are both infected and affected by the virus, but also because HIV and AIDS are the reductionist buzz words that have settled on this continent. To define a whole continent and its people by a virus and a body degenerating, immune-depleting virus, recalls the whispers of Africa/ns ever lacking. There are many mental and physical health conditions affecting our communities: various depressions, cancers, organ malfunctions and failures, STDs, common colds and ‘flu that get out of hand. All our bodies are affected in sickness and health by poetics and politics. When last was there a global outcry over the limited availability of donor organs in Africa, or the exorbitant immuno-suppressant drugs necessary for transplants? (It is ironic that this goes out in the wake of the recent Tshabalala-Msimang debacle. Perhaps organ donations will become a hot topic.)
Maybe these medical conditions don’t make for good photo-journalism stories. In the discourse of Western visual paradigms, there is an affinity with the body. This affinity turns into ghoulish fascination and horror when confronted with the body’s demise. In imagery of the Black African Other in a state of decay (and our 21st century world is far from cutting the ties of these stereotypes), affinity and horror mingle into grand humanitarian urges. This, I propose, has given the HIV/AIDS ravaged body great visual – and media- currency in the West. Not to undermine the suffering of those who have died AIDS-related deaths or are still suffering. The medical reality is that with the compromised immune system, AIDS does spiral often curable conditions out of the control of modern doctors, drugs and solutions. And it is control of life itself that is the ultimate frontier.
The West may no longer be political colonial masters, but there is a territory they claim to know well: science, medicine and the ‘able-body’. It is not surprising that in visual images of Africa, the potential of science, medicine and the ‘able-body’ seldom feature. The image canon of Africa as lacking still fuels Afro-pessimism, in the West and elsewhere. Over the last three years, I have collected posters, brochures, comic books, leaflets – any printed public health material to do with HIV/AIDS in my home corner of the world, Cape Town. I have come developed an interpretation that South African organisations are attempting to tackle what one might suggest as a ‘counter-narrative’ of the HIV/AIDS situation. My point of departure is the poetics of the situation: how the hopes, realities, concerns and underpinning ideologies spill into public health material (both from government and NGOs) in language and particularly images. It is particularly interesting to look at this material in it's visualising of action: informing, preventing, supporting and acting.
The Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) provides a fine case study of an organisation that visualizes this counter-discourse of Afro-empowerment. Moreover, this visualization is intentional. Like any brand-name campaign, they have recognised the value of a good image. A picture is worth a 1000 words, if not a $1000. On their website they acknowledge the power of visual images in furthering their cause by offering free use of their images, as long as the organisation is acknowledged. This is (South) Africans doing it for themselves. Such is one of the narratives around the materiality of the wider HIV/AIDS situation in South Africa. Indeed, there are more; some hopeful, others heartbreaking.
Visual representations of (South) Africans active in the face of a destructive virus delineate a social psyche trying to move forward. It is not a luxurious or distracting social dream, but part of a very real and hopeful social truth. Like the truth of fighting for political freedom that fuelled so many movements on our continent.
What the HIV/AIDS situation has brought to our attention is the politics of health- and consequently, the very politics of life. In our increasingly visual age, we reflect these politics in the subtle meanings invested in images. For a long time, post-colonial studies have lobbied for previously silenced voices to be heard. I propose the image as the new voice, so that it might be said: there are two types of people in Africa, those who are represented by others and those who choose how they represent themselves.
* Annwen E. Bates is a visiting lecturer in Art History and Visual Culture at Rhodes University. She holds degrees from UCT and the University of Oxford. With regret she writes above about ‘Africa’ as a cohesive whole, a strategy she often criticises, and is open to invitations that will guide more
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