Nepal: Making a creative connection with HIV/AIDS

An exhibition of paintings to create awareness about issues related to HIV/AIDS

On 1 December 2010, celebrated globally as World AIDS Day, a unique painting exhibition was inaugurated in Kathmandu, Nepal. Titled 'Expression of Repression', the exhibition had an important task to do - to give the viewers a deep insight into the world of people living with HIV/AIDS through colour and visual imagery.

"Many organizations are working on the issue of HIV/AIDS. Still, the issue is not really understood by people", says Sohan Babu Khatri, a management consultant and a self-taught artist from Nepal. "The real causes of the problem are not known. There are also many preconceived notions about people living with HIV/AIDS. I personally started learning more about the subject when I started working with FAITH (Friends Affected and Infected Together in Hand), an NGO in Nepal as a technical consultant. So I thought why not infuse some creativity to express some of the issues around HIV/AIDS? Also by doing a painting exhibition, we were trying to bring these traditionally 'ngo issues' in front of a larger audience."

Sohan Khatri was joined in this endeavour by Kapil Mani Dixit, a trained artist who specializes in human figure drawing and FAITH. The team decided to portray the stories of people living with HIV - mainly drug users, sex workers and transgenders - through the overall theme of nudity. "The idea was to 'expose' the issue at its most basic level - address the causes of HIV/AIDS, the misconceptions and stigma surrounding the issue. So what better idea than to work with the theme of nudity?" says Miraj Roshan, Director, FAITH. "Through theme of nudity, we wanted to expose the repression that people living with HIV/AIDS feel, spread awareness about their rights, and try to change some of societal thinking."

Working through the concept, the team decided on two approaches to the paintings - one of working with figure drawings where the people living with HIV/AIDS were the models themselves and second to use colour and form to represent both the causes and emotional aspects of the issue. "We did thorough research for nearly three months to develop the paintings," says Sohan Khatri. "We spoke to a number of people living with HIV, including sex workers, drug users, recovering drug users and members of the third sex. We tried to understand their lives, their feelings and society's perception of them. My first interaction was with a group of sex workers. I was initially very uncomfortable asking them direct questions. At the end of two hours, I was in tears. There were so many issues that emerged when talking to them...this issue and that issue and some more issues. So when I made my first painting, I titled it 'And'. I painted the image of woman like the '&' symbol on the keyboard. The woman, who represents a sex worker, is trying to move from the dark side to the brighter side of life. Her hand, which is being untouched by water, signifies the society does not accept her easily. The leaf, which composes the woman's body, signifies the woman as a giver of life."

The exhibition was inaugurated by Dr. Krishna Kumar Rai, Director of the National Center for AIDS and STI Control (NCASC), Nepal at the Yak and Yeti Hotel in Kathmandu. The ceremony also included a theater performance and a video installation. The paintings were then kept on display for at the Nepal Art Council from 4 - 10 December 2010.

Through a series of paintings, the artists have tried to represent a wide gamut of issues related to HIV/AIDS such as unsafe sexual behavior, drug use - especially injecting drug use which is a significant cause of HIV/AIDS due to the sharing of infected needles and syringes, the lure of money amongst the youth, which often draws them to sex work, the issue of unemployment and migration followed by unsafe sexual behavior and even sexual exploitation, the repression of women in society, the health implications of HIV/AIDS, the feelings of loss and hopelessness felt by the people living with HIV and their marginalization by society. The paintings also try to link up to the bigger picture, especially in Nepal. "While researching the subject I realized that the problem is related with everything that is going on in our society. Our country is going through a transition; we have been trying to form a proper government since the last six months. There is a lot of social instability with growing crime rates and social disturbances. Migration for jobs is on the rise and very often, the people affected by these problems are also especially vulnerable to HIV. So if you take up unemployment, migration is a related issue and which in turn relates to unsafe sex and HIV. Similarly, many issues such as unemployment, drug use, sex work and crime, are interrelated. And these concerns, which are very relevant in a transitionary society like ours, can also be relevant to many other societies."

The viewers' response to the exhibition has been most encouraging for the team. "People who did not understand art understood HIV/AIDS and appreciated our efforts to represent a social issue through art," says Sohan Khatri. "Artists and those who understood art praised us for our work. Social activists were also very impressed by the idea; in fact some organizations working on other social issues also wanted us to do artwork for them. What was very encouraging was that some of the models, who had posed for the paintings and had not want their identity revealed, went up to the journalists and identified themselves in the paintings. This was a big breakthrough for us." Miraj Roshan adds on, "It was a bold experiment we were trying, and I think it caught the attention of the people in a positive way. For the first time, I felt the people's interest to know more about the subject and I got a chance to explain some of it to them. It helped shatter some typical notions that people had about drug users, sex workers and transgenders."

Apart from spreading awareness about HIV/AIDS, the event helped to raise funds for the cause, especially through corporate houses like the Civil Bank, Nepal. The funds will be used FAITH to start a cooperative for people living with HIV/AIDS, which will encourage them to pick up livelihood skills, start small enterprises and become more self reliant. Local corporate houses are also helping with this initiative.

"When it comes to social issues, the media thinks that it is the responsibility of social organizations  to handle it; their job is to just produce news", says Sohan Khatri "And social organisations complain that media houses don't bother about these issues. But I think that it is not the responsibility of any one group. Social organizations also should be able to make the media understand these issues which affect our society. Both need to talk to each other and strategize together to raise awareness and advocacy around such themes. So I think both the media and social organisations need to educate each other on how to communicate socially relevant issues effectively."

The 'Expression of Repression' exhibition was supported by the Ministry of Health and Population, Government of Nepal, World Health Organisation (Country Office for Nepal) and the UNODC Regional Office for South Asia .

Click here to view the image gallery of paintings and photographs from the exhibition

Click here to view the exhibition catalogue