Creating awareness of women and children

2007-02-01 00:00

The mother asked to stay.

She looked at her silent child

I was waiting for you.

The quiet of the girl's face was a differemt quiet.

Her hands lay untouched by death.

The washer of bodies cut

away her long black dress.

Blue prayer beads fell

to the floor in a slow accounting.

The washer of bodies began to sing

a prayer to mothers and daughters.

The mother said,

who will wait for me. (from War Triptych by Gabeba Baderoon)

THE poem and print on this page are part of the exhibition currently at the Tatham Art Gallery, Women for Children. Each of the 25 prints on display, all by women artists, has an accompanying poem by a woman poet, and each pairing of poem and print communicates a message on issues of children's rights and welfare.

The print portfolio exhibition is part of a wider project put together by Art for Humanity, a non-profit organisation based at the Durban University of Technology. When I ask Jan Jordaan of the Women for Children project where the idea came from, he says it is a response to what is happening all around us. “The plight of children is deplorable,” he says. “And women's stories are not really heard - this is making them visible.”

Jordaan says the project is concerned not so much in the art itself, although some of it is spectacular, as in what it can achieve. And while the most obvious part of the project in Pietermaritzburg at the moment is the exhibition in the main gallery space at the Tatham, that is by no means its only face.

“Exhibitions are a great way to reach people who are important in society, and who like to be seen at galleries and openings. So this is a good way to target them,” says Jordaan. But these are not the only people he wants to reach. A second part of the project is its billboard campaign.

“We have got 21 billboards up nationally so far,” he says. “We've put them in railway stations, at taxi ranks, pension payout points -wherever people congregate. It makes for a captive audience.”

Funded by the Foundation for Human Rights, the billboards began to appear in November and December last year. Part of the billboard project is to have the poems translated into the various official languages, so the boards will show one of the prints and its accompanying poem in the most used language of the area.

The first billboard went up at the taxi rank in Melmoth in July 2005, featuring a print by Gabi Nkosi from Caversham and a poem by Mavis Smallberg who works at the Robben Island Museum. It then became apparent that the poem should be in the first language of local people. The next one was put up in Isipingo, near a payout point for social welfare grants, showing a Bronwen Vaughan-Evans print and a Nise Malange poem, originally in English but translated into Zulu. Last November, when the funding came through, the majority of the billboards went up.

“The third leg of the project is to distribute the poetry, in poster form, to schools,” says Jordaan. Eventually, he would like to see posters of the artworks being distributed as well. Ultimately, the whole project must become something that is not just up for a year and then gone, but something that will be there for future generations, part of a heritage as well as an educational tool.

Inevitably, the scale of the Women for Children undertaking makes it expensive to run. The major funding has come from the National Lottery, but, says Jordaan, the artists and writers have also been very generous, accepting what is really only a token gratuity for their work and time. Each artist has given an edition of 30 prints to Art for Humanity. “For the artists, the money is really to cover the production costs - printmaking can be expensive,” says Jordaan. “And the poets get even less. But it's not about the money; they all feel strongly about the issues of abuse.”

One way of recouping some money from the project is to sell the print portfolios - at R35 000 each. They are aimed at galleries and institutions, and one has already been bought by the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh. They have told Jordaan that the portfolio represents “incredible value for money”.

And the book, Look at Me, which doubles as an exhibition catalogue but is also an attractive book in its own right, is for sale in conjunction with the exhibition and from Jordaan at DUT.

The book gives a short history of Art for Humanity. It began, back in 1988, as an ad hoc committee named Artists for Human Rights, which aimed to promote a culture of human rights through art in a very dark time in the country's history. In 1996, the organisation published its first print portfolio, Images of Human Rights, to mark South Africa's Bill of Rights and in 2000 a second portfolio, Break the Silence, was published. This consisted of work by local and international artists, aiming to inspire South Africans to fight against the HIV/Aids pandemic.

With the new project, the role of art in bringing often difficult and controversial subjects into the public domain continues. The exhibition is having its first public showing at the Tatham, and will travel on to other South African galleries as well as to Unesco in New York, where it will be displayed for three months later this year. It will also be shown at conferences in Albuquerque in New Mexico and Nairobi.

For more information on Art for Humanity, the Women for Children exhibition or the book, Look at Me, contact Jan Jordaan at 031 203 6610 or e-mail janj@dut.ac.za

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