Art and AIDS

Art and AIDS

Gloria Reuben, who played HIV-positive nurse Jeanie Boulet on the NBC show E.R., gave the closing address at the AIDS/SIDA: Global Updates, Art, and Performance symposium. (Photo by Margaretta Soehendro)

AIDS/SIDA symposium mixes one part science and one part art to raise awareness about HIV prevention and the treatment of the disease. View a slideshow from the event.

What I want to suggest is that we also need artists to enter the conversation, to enter the mix. --David Gere, UCLA World Arts & Cultures

View a slideshow of the May 7 symposium.

"Some people are inspired intellectually," said actress Gloria Reuben. "Others are more inspired by what they feel or by what their instincts tell them. So I think that it's the collaboration of both, the intellectual and the artistic format, that can really make change."

Reuben, who played HIV-positive nurse Jeanie Boulet on the NBC show E.R., gave the closing address at the AIDS/SIDA: Global Updates, Art, and Performance symposium on May 7, 2008, held in conjunction with the MAKE ART/STOP AIDS exhibition currently at the Fowler Museum. The exhibit presents visual and performing arts primarily from the United States, Brazil, South Africa, and India and will later travel to cities in those countries overseas.

"I really feel like the creative arts play a key role in getting the messages of HIV prevention and awareness and treatment out there," said Reuben.

MASA began in 2003 with a $50,000 grant from the UCLA International Institute as part of its Global Impact research program.

"The UCLA International Institute, together with our centers and programs, continue to show an ongoing commitment to understanding the global AIDS epidemic," said the Institute's acting Vice Provost Nick Entrikin.

The AIDS/SIDA symposium was sponsored by the UCLA International Institute, the University of California Humanities Research Institute, the UCLA AIDS Institute, the Art and Activism Lecture Series, Artists for a New South Africa, the James S. Coleman African Studies Center, the Latin American Institute, the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, the Center for India and South Asia, the Center for the Study of Women, the Program in Global Health, the School of Arts and Architecture, the  Department of World Arts and Cultures (WAC), the Fowler Museum, and the Art/Global Health Center.

Over the course of the afternoon, global health experts gave updates on the AIDS situation in Africa, Latin America, Southeast Asia, and South Asia, and artists gave performances related to each region.

"So often we think that when we're talking about the AIDS epidemic … we should be focusing mainly on the contributions that people in medicine can make—and we need those contributions…. But what I want to suggest is that we also need artists to enter the conversation, to enter the mix," said David Gere, project director for the Art/Global Health Center and an associate professor and WAC co-chair.


Paula Tavrow, director of the Bixby program in Population and Reproductive Health at the UCLA School of Public Health, said Africa continues to have the greatest burden regarding AIDS. While sub-Saharan Africa contains 12 percent of the world's population, it has 69 percent of the world's HIV/AIDS population.

Referring to UCLA World Arts and Cultures student D. Sabela Grimes' performance "about women, yo' mama," which preceded her presentation, Tavrow said, "That really is an issue in Africa. AIDS really does have a woman's face. Over 60 percent of those infected are women."

The current AIDS prevention programs in Africa are not making major inroads in decreasing new infections, said Tavrow, and new strategies are needed.

Latin America

Alejandro Brito Lemus is a writer, editor and general director of the non-governmental organization Letra S, which disseminates information about sexuality, health and HIV/AIDS in Mexico. He also directs the organization's eponymous newspaper supplement, and at the symposium, Brito Lemus read personal stories that Letra S had published about Mexicans living with HIV or AIDS: a gay man, a blood-transfusion patient, a family, and a mother.

Giving an update on the region, Evelyn Gonzalez-Figueroa, the associate director of international programs at AIDS Project Los Angeles, said the group hardest hit with HIV/AIDS in Latin America is men who have sex with men (MSM), but "marked improvements" in MSM adult prevalence rates have followed local prevention programs. Anti-homophobia campaigns, such as "No Más en el Tintero" (No Longer in the Dark), also reduce the stigma that fuels the AIDS epidemic in Central America, she said.

The Latin American Institute will host Latino AIDS Community Night on May 29, bringing together local artists to showcase their HIV/AIDS-themed works and Latin community leaders.

Southeast Asia

Donald Morisky, a professor in the Department for Community Health Sciences, said that unprotected sex and injection drug use (IDU) are the predominant causes of HIV transmission in Southeast Asia.

"Injection drug users are a very significant high-risk group because not only do they transmit HIV through their own sharing of drug paraphernalia, but many of these are also bridge transmitters in terms of heterosexual contact," said Morisky.

Morisky also discussed why the Philippines' HIV/AIDS rates are so low. Reportedly, 10,000 people are living with the disease out of 85 million. A geography of 7,000 islands prevents viral pools, he said, and a government mandate requires commercial sex workers to register at social-hygiene clinics, placing responsibility on the owners and managers of establishments such as bars, beer gardens, and nightclubs.

After Morisky's update, Giovanni Ortega, a dance-theater artist and a graduate from UCLA's MFA acting program, sang a Filipino lullaby while perfoming malong-malong and fan dances.

Earlier in the week, the Center for Southeast Asian Studies screened To Touch the Soul, a documentary about a Cal State University Long Beach art education professor who took 27 of his students to Cambodia to work with local college students in conducting art projects for impoverished children affected by HIV/AIDS. The Fowler Museum, UCLA's United Khmer Students, and the Art/Global Health Center cosponsored the event.

South Asia

Roger Detels, a professor of epidemiology and infectious diseases at the UCLA Schools of Public Health and Medicine, sounded a cautionary note against low HIV/AIDS prevalence rates that came out of India in 2007. Detels said that while there is a "feeling" that the epidemic is on the decline in the south, in high-prevalence states Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, and Maharashta, "I have some question as an epidemiologist, because if you don't keep the denominator constant over time, it's very hard to evaluate trends. So I'm not really sure what's going on in India."

Nandita Palchoudhuri, a folk arts curator, and Gurupada Chitrakar, a scrollpainter and singer, flew in from West Bengal, India to present the symposium's last performance. Palchoudhuri works on a collaborative project that brings scrollpainter-singers together with HIV-positive community health workers to reduce the AIDS stigma in rural communities. Scrollpainter-singers like Chitrakar go to villages, and, through scroll and song, share stories on preventing and living with AIDS. Chitrakar sang two songs, one about a man who contracted AIDS through injection drug use and one about a couple using condoms.

MASA and the Center for India and South Asia sponsored a lecture by writer Siddharth Dube last month on April 10. Dube, also a scholar-in-residence at Yale University's Center for Interdisciplinary Research on AIDS, said that the encouragingly low figures on HIV/AIDS prevalence in India—the result of large population studies by USAID and Gates Foundation Avahan—must be considered in a larger context. Rates for high-risk groups—female sex workers, MSM, and IDUs—were not declining, he observed.

Published: Tuesday, May 20, 2008