Learning to Understand: Art Helps to Dispel Ignorance

The artist looks at the paintings which were developed for the Health Commission on education, prevention and caring in the AIDS environment. Using an Aboriginal perspective these paintings were produced as a powerful series of posters.

When Peter Bishop asked me to write an article on AIDS and the paintings that I developed for the Health Commission on education, prevention and caring, I proposed to him that perhaps it would be relevant to relate this experience through my eyes instead of trying to amalgamate an all-Aboriginal perspective on what is a unique and confusing issue.

In 1991, I tendered five images to the Commonwealth Department of Health, Housing and Community Services for a proposed and scheduled conference on AIDS in Alice Springs. This became the First National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders’ conference on AIDS and its impact on our communities and individuals.

The images that I created for tender were accepted and I proceeded to develop these concepts into the paintings that exist today.

The feelings in these paintings reflect my innermost pain at the loss of life and dignity, intertwined with hope and understanding. It is hard to realise the gravity of ignorance in relation to the serious intensity of such a debilitating disease.

My approach was definite; I wanted to project an optimistic and less frightening vision than had previously been adopted. The Grim Reaper ravaged my lounge room and my mind, and I couldn’t wait to expel it. Although I can appreciate the need to shock people out of a complacent attitude towards the whole issue, the concept of people being scared did not make me feel confident about what officials were doing to try and help people to become more aware of AIDS.

The three paintings were and are distributed widely. They have been presented ‘across the board’: this encompasses Aboriginal Health Services, Aboriginal communities, schools and internationally. This has created a general increase in the awareness of the whole issue.

The Department produces ten thousand of each image every three months and since 1991, has released approximately 120,000 each of the three posters. As Jim McGrath from the Department said: “There is little sign of demand slowing”. This is extremely pleasing for me, not only as an Aboriginal but also as an artist, as this disease does not rationalise the worth/quality of the victim’s life and so alleviates racial boundaries. It can attack anyone.

So the statistical evidence supports an advance in awareness but I can assure you that it was not automatically apparent at the beginning of the Conference at Alive Springs in 1991.

However, a debacle at this conference was a slight on HIV people by a prominent Australian who had been invited to open it and give a keynote address. This person was regarded highly in the Aboriginal community for his humane and diligent fight for the advancement of health for Aboriginal people and other disadvantaged minority groups elsewhere.

The speaker’s proposal that Aboriginal people should be quarantined to help them survive into the future, left all the HIV-affected people sitting with me disappointed and outraged. It served as a rallying point for these people but ultimately created a negative element to what could have been such a rewarding event. People attending the conference did not want to be herded into somebody else’s philosophical reasoning but to be heard, not as voices in the wilderness but voices in the throng.

Not only were people marginalised by being Aboriginal but had to deal with the ‘double barrel’ of being HIV positive as well.

The Conference was exhausting, both for the workshops and the socialising. The closed workshop sessions for men and women were productive and appropriate, and proved illuminating for me because the experiences were individual, personal and courageous.

Generally the feelings of humiliation and self-doubt that seem to go hand-in-hand with AIDS are created by other people’s antagonism and misunderstanding; this is indeed a malevolent energy and it proposes no sense of hope. The more that people care and educate themselves about the disease, the more considerate a society we will become. An analogy can be made to our education and perceptions about ‘Aboriginal Australia’ as well. It is like the wind in August/September; people’s despair and ignorance rise up in tumultuous willy willys and then die down just as quickly. This turbulence of air creates negative feelings towards anyone who has HIV and is counterproductive to the alleviation of pain and misery. I tell children in many primary schools that it’s like another cancer that we don’t know how to treat.

Since the Conference, I have been stimulated by debate on the issue and I have pursued some consciousness-raising, both on behalf of myself and others, particularly in relation to family and community. I initiate debate with primary/ secondary/ tertiary students and openly invite their perceptions of AIDS. It is a heartening emotion to have people respond to your visual/ oral interpretation of the subject and to appreciate that the imagery has had some effect.

I have friends that are HIV and have known many who have died. It is sad and frightening and it frustrates me that I know they’re going to die. It’s not like an accident that hits you out of the blue. My emotion is one of anger and dismay so I cannot fathom the depth of incredulity that they must feel.

In the last three years I have seen a leap in acceptance and general awareness in the community. I’m sure that the many conferences, exhibitions, events and education programmes that have circulated through this society and internationally show an increase in people power, and a demand for the answer in relation to equality in care and understanding, and the halting of the decimation of life.

I keep remembering one woman who spoke clearly with the voice of one and at the same time the voice of many. She closed her paper/ discussion with the profound words that reverberate throughout the communities with dire effects.

“Hey honey! When he ays he hasn’t been out with a woman, believe him! He’s been out with a man.”

Although this comment addresses only one of the causes of the spread of AIDS, it brings to the forefront the essence of the debate. Without trust and respect for each other, we will never be able to achieve equitable life dividends for those suffering from AIDS and those who suffer with them.