Honouring people with Aids

2009-03-05 00:00

AIDS activist, documentary maker and artist — words which describe Jean Carlomusto. None, however, can quite capture the deeply passionate woman I met at the Durban Art Gallery.

This veteran New Yorker was in Durban to set up her complex and very beautiful work, Offerings, 2008, which forms part of the international exhibition — Not Alone: An International Project of Make Art/Stop Aids — which can be viewed at the gallery until May 20.

Her work can be seen alongside the Keiskamma Altarpiece, an embroidered and wire-sculpted artwork made by 120 people living in the Eastern Cape and Lang Magwa’s adaptation of his public horn-shaped sculpture for the Africa Centre.

Explaining the inspiration for her piece, Offerings, 2008, Carlomusto said: “It is an altar commemorating people I have met and worked with since 1982. At the time gay people were wondering: ‘What is this strange thing that is killing people? Do I have it?’ It takes us back to a time when Aids was a mysterious killer but also includes portraits done a year ago.”

The first version of the piece, called The Portrait Gallery, was created in 2001 for the exhibition, AIDS: A Living Archive, which was staged to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the global HIV/Aids pandemic. Most of those profiled in The Portrait Gallery were comrades from Aids battles, who had subsequently died of the disease or were living with HIV/Aids. Offerings, 2008 continues the theme and includes new faces, many of whom are alive and well.

Carlomusto credits long-time friend Joey Lianti, who worked with Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC), as the man who got her involved in Aids activism. Despite having Kaposi’s Sarcoma (KS), a cancer commonly occurring in Aids patients which leaves them covered in disfiguring lesions, Lianti was willing to be filmed by Carlomusto as part of a drive to educate people about the disease.

“He had facial KS lesions and for a guy who had been at the height of the gay scene it was difficult for him to deal with, but he went on camera anyway,” she said, adding that the GMHC arranged for make-up artists to come in and teach gay men about how to cover the lesions up.

“Without it they couldn’t shop or get a taxi cab. It shows the importance of stigma. Even now there is a stigma associated with HIV and Aids, even though it is illegal to treat people with the disease differently. You can’t, however, make it illegal to talk about people or gossip about people with HIV.

“That’s why I included two youth activists in the new piece — they are about 13 or 14 years of age and do peer education to counteract the stigma. We need to get the message across early to prevent discrimination taking hold and also to protect young people from getting the disease in the first place.”

Carlomusto admitted to being very impressed to see a box of condoms in a public lavatory in Durban. “You wouldn’t see something like that in the United States,” she explained, adding that the George Bush years were difficult ones for Aids activists in the U.S., because the Republicans only preached one message: abstinence.

“We could have brought down the HIV infection rate if strong intervention had taken place, the kind of things which we know work. The numbers of new infections in the U.S. are now closer to 50 000 a year (rather than the 40 000 a year from the official statistics), but this doesn’t have to be the case. The most important thing is to create an open dialogue.”

Aside from her multimedia artworks, Carlomusto, a professor of media arts and director of the television studio at the C. W. Post Campus of Long Island University, loves making documentaries.

“When I got out of college in 1982, what was around me was that my friends were dying. Television only showed people in shadow and with their voices altered. It was damaging as it made people with the disease feel different.

“I made documentaries of people living with Aids and wanted to do portraits of people doing extraordinary things, for example promoting safer sex and how to practise it; talking to your partner about safer sex without it sounding pornographic and vulgar; demystifying condoms and making people realise that condoms are not the end of the world.

“I am currently working on a documentary about how safer sex evolved in the U.S. — the concept of it. My students don’t remember a time without it. The documentary chronicles the Aids crisis as well.”

Asked what her favourite documentary was, she said Shatzi is Dying — a multi-layered film exploring gay culture, Aids politics, life and death, through the numerous near-death experiences of a beloved rescue dog.

“On the surface it’s about our dog who was dying but really it’s about coming to terms with having so much loss in our lives,” Carlomusto said. “My home is like a morgue, it is full of tapes of our friends who have died. But it isn’t a depressing film. It’s a documentary about living as well.”

• Durban Art Gallery is open Monday to Saturday, from 8.30 am to 4 pm and Sundays from 11 am to 4 pm. Admission is free.

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