Thursday, December 9, 2010

Manit Sriwanichpoom, ‘ Beautiful Life,’

Manit Sriwanichpoom, ‘ Beautiful Life,’ in the Silpa Wattanatham column of Siamrath Weekly News Magazine, July 18 – 24, 2008, Yr.55, Vol. 43.

‘More to Love – The Art of Living Together’ is a show of contemporary art organized in the hope of building understanding and dislodging prejudices toward people with HIV-AIDS. The exhibition has four venues: the Wityanitat Gallery at Chulalongkorn University; the Gallery of the Faculty of Painting, Sculpture and Graphic Art at Silpakorn University; the Tadu Gallery, and TK Learning Park, from 24 July through 15 August, 2008. More than 20 Thai and foreign artists are participating. The curator is Chatiya Nittyponprasert who selected the works.

The driving force behind this show is Han Nefkens, a Dutch writer and kindly rich man.
He owns the H+F Collection of many contemporary works of art. The life and history of this man is interesting and worth sharing. He himself has lived with an HIV infection for more than 20 years. Now, by age 50, Han has been moving in Thai contemporary art circles for about 5 years, supporting magazines and art activities concerned with an HIV-AIDS campaign.

Besides supporting art projects, he gives money for research projects and for the development of medicines to fight the AIDS virus. The HIV-NAT Center coordinates between Thailand, Australia and the Netherlands, and works with the Thai Red Cross as well.

Han speaks frequently – at every opportunity. The reason he has survived so long, longer than so many others infected with AIDS, is because – luckily for him – he’s rich. He can afford to buy the expensive medications he needs. But his fellow humans are not so lucky –so many of them – and they die tragically. Therefore, he felt impelled to provide funds to support the development of medicines, making them cheaper and more effective in the body of the sick person. Especially regarding children, drug companies don’t want to invest in medication for them, because they have no earning power to invest. Many infected children have to take medicine which is too strong for them, which was designed for adults.

Han is keenly observant. He thinks about the problems of those infected with HIV – the problems they face in their lives. He sees that when Thai society gives only medicine to fight the virus, it’s not enough. Those who have to deal with the infection face a stigma as well. They are victims of prejudice, excluded from society, even though doctors have clearly stated that it is not easy to be randomly infected by the virus in daily life and that those who are infected can live in ordinary society like other people. In many agencies, in companies, even in schools, when people learn that an employee or someone they know - a child, perhaps - has HIV, the head of the agency, company, or school, will ask or even force the person to leave. When people lose their jobs, when children have no school to go to, they do indeed become a burden to society. But these things don’t really have to happen.

Unfortunately the stigma, the prejudice, the discrimination, is not easy to correct.
It’s not as easy as simply taking medicine. Even though many people, including doctors, know for a fact that AIDS is not easy to transmit in daily life, many of them still refuse to adjust their beliefs or behavior. The stigma, the prejudice, lives on in their perception.

Hoping to use art as a tool to correct and change perception, to change attitudes through the visual arts, and to communicate through images, Hans created the project, ‘More to Love.’ These simple art exhibitions develop into something more than typical contemporary art shows. Through them, Hans hopes to push Thai society to think about and see the problems of those infected with HIV – the challenges they face.

At the beginning of the white decade of the 80’s and the HIV-AIDS epidemic, the Thai medical establishment was unable to control or deal with the virus.
Doctors, public and private health workers, and the media had first to create a primary image. They made the disease look really scary. That was the first step. Victims were pictured, emaciated, dehydrated, bedridden and awaiting death. This was the image taken to heart round the world.

From the beginning, the infected were presented with faces hidden. In newspapers, faces are blurred or blocked by a black bar. On TV, they blur the focus, or have the person turn their back, or make an unintelligible ‘mosaic’ of the person’s face, or put on a cap which obscures their identity. These methods are used with all the infected, whatever their age or status. Whoever it is, adult or child, the result is that sufferers look like lawbreakers in society. (The fact that HIV-AIDS can be passed through sexual intercourse or sharing needles tends especially to give more fuel to the condemning speeches of moralizing preachers.)

We have to follow up and correct this central scary image which was created to deceive and frighten people.
This was a challenge to artists who joined the project. How can such a change be accomplished?

Speaking for myself, how can we change the frightening, depressing, hopeless pictures of those who have been infected by HIV and those suffering from AIDS if we don’t replace them with refreshing images, full of hope, with a future?
The old ideas must be replaced. I’m not saying anything new here: many countries round the world have done this already. And they have succeeded, especially in Western countries where Han has traveled. He has seen that art can help bring this change about.

In order that participating artists would receive information and feel the stigma attached to infected people, Chatiya and doctors at the HIV-NAT Center introduced them to people infected with HIV and their family caregivers. The artists heard about the impact on the lives of the affected persons and their families. Adults had lost their jobs and had no money for treatment. They were shunned by the surrounding community. As for children, the teachers who should have protected these innocents instead attacked them. For children, infection meant being driven from school in the middle of the school year.

It seems as if we shouldn’t condemn anyone in this case, but rather cooperate in changing attitudes.

I wanted to present photos which were bright and full of hope in order to erase the dark and dreary image of HIV infected persons. (Some people were surprised that I could get these very fresh and lively photos, since they had only ever seen frightening and depressing pictures.) I thought that images of those charming, happy, laughing children would touch the hearts of adults with compassion. Without prejudice, they would care more for these children and feel more sympathy for their fellow men.
I captioned the black and white photo, ‘Life is Beautiful,’ as follows:

The smiles and shining eyes of these four children express the purity
of tens of thousands of similar boys and girls throughout Thailand
who were born and have been growing up with HIV
inherited from their
parents. Society as a whole brands or stigmatizes these children, excluding
them from life in the normal world. And these boys and girls must
struggle even harder with another vicious plague, the ‘virus of prejudice.’

If you don’t believe the camera, ask the doctors you know.
Why must we resist and hide, covering the faces of these innocent children, excluding them from ordinary society? The media and the press make them out to be dangerous criminals when in fact all they need is to preserve their own lives day by day. That is the heroism of these children.

Stop being prejudiced, stop branding, stop stigmatizing the sick and the HIV infected children and adults! It is possible for us to live together in harmony.

Unfortunately, the set of photos which I hoped to show in the exhibition, ‘Their Hearts, Our Hearts,’ was rejected by an NGO working on behalf of children.
This NGO objected, saying that the pictures violated the children’s rights by showing their lovely faces. But I had reasons and principles which were quite opposite to those of the protesting agency. I felt that this set of works fights on behalf of children who have been deprived of their rights, and whose human dignity has been violated by adults. These pictures are a way to ‘use a thorn to reveal the thorn that is causing pain.’ But the NGO disagreed.

So I withdrew in order that this celebration of contemporary art, the ‘Their Hearts, Our Hearts’ exhibition, could move smoothly forward. Then, I brought the pictures, ‘Life is Beautiful,’ to show at the Kathmandu Photo Gallery from 31 July to 31 August, 2008. (

Seeing the radiant smiles of these children, how do you feel?

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