Young Kenyans affected by HIV/AIDS unmask feelings through art in Richmond VA

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HIV unmaskThe plaster mask on the gallery wall is a face without eyes.
Lest this work of art leave too much to interpretation, a handwritten sentence beneath it is an eye-opener: The future is blurred when you have HIV.

The mask is part of “Never Walk Alone,” an exhibit at ART 180, a local nonprofit organization that provides art-related programs to young people living in challenging circumstances.
What’s unusual about this exhibit is that the young artists, ranging in age from 6 to 18, are from Kenya. And their circumstance is among the most challenging imaginable: living with HIV/AIDS.
In addition to the vivid masks with feathers and glitter that dot the walls of ART 180’s Atlas teen studio in Jackson Ward, the exhibit features a Leave a Message Canvas, decorated with colorful handprints, in which the youths write messages to stop stigma and raise awareness about the disease.
The canvas, created in August 2014, was inspired by the NAMES Project Foundation’s AIDS Memorial Quilt, created in 1987 to spread awareness and connectivity to those with HIV/AIDS.
The exhibit also includes circle cloths created by Kenyan children in August 2013 to inspire them to move beyond shame to speak up about their HIV-positive status through poems, drawings and messages. One drawing of a snake devouring a bird speaks of the pervasive sense of dread surrounding the disease.
It’s easy to forget amid an Ebola outbreak that has devastated Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, but AIDS remains a far more widespread problem, decades after it created the sort of panic, stigma and indifference we’ve witnessed with Ebola.
One in eight households in Kenya have at least one person infected with HIV, according to the 2012 Kenya AIDS Indicator Survey. Mother-to-child transmission of HIV remains a major problem. The disease leaves children orphaned, depressed or resigned to a future as blurred as the aforementioned mask.
Adding to the poignancy is the reality that some of the children were unaware of their HIV status, or that of their parents, as one young lady described in an essay that is part of the exhibit:
I decided not to tell my mum the truth because she would be disappointed in me. She had great hopes in me. Little did I know she was also HIV positive because she never shared it with me.
“We’re fighting (non)disclosure and stigma, not the actual disease,” said Elana Carr-Vallimont, an ART 180 program assistant at Redd Elementary School who has worked in Kenya the past two summers as art director for Sunburst Projects, a nonprofit that provides social and psychological support to HIV/AIDS youth in Kenya.
“We’re fighting (non)disclosure and stigma, not the actual disease,” said Elana Carr-Vallimont, an ART 180 program assistant at Redd Elementary School who has worked in Kenya the past two summers as art director for Sunburst Projects, a nonprofit that provides social and psychological support to HIV/AIDS youth in Kenya.
The show is a collaboration between ART 180 and Sunburst Projects.
While in Kenya this past summer, Carr-Vallimont applied to assist ART 180 in one of its fall after-school programs, recalled Michael Guedri, program manager of Atlas. After finding out more about the work she was doing at Camp Sunburst, Guedri offered to host an exhibit.
“I jumped on it,” Carr-Vallimont recalled. “When he asked me if I could get all this art here, I said, ‘Sure!’ But I hung up and had no idea how.”
Fortunately, Nancy Nyana, Kenya program manager for Sunburst Projects, was about to travel to Connecticut. She packed the art and brought it to America, mailing it from the Nutmeg State. The canvas and cloths were neatly folded in a box; the masks were stacked and numbered with their accompanying narratives. The exhibit opened Nov. 7.
“It felt serendipitous that we had an opening in our exhibition schedule and this artwork was available — it’s our first global art show,” said Marlene Paul, co-founder and executive director of ART 180.
“Despite what they’re facing, these children have such optimistic spirits. That comes through in their pieces, and it’s incredibly inspiring.”
Indeed, the vibrant masks and optimistic messages burst with resilience in the face of adversity.
All I wanna do is be happy with my life till the end of time. I am positive always, reads one message on the Leave a Message Canvas. I have hope in every thing, reads another message above a heart with wings.
Open up share and get free, reads another.
But the psychological toll and stigma of HIV has led some youths to not take their medication. “They feel like they’re already destined to die,” Carr-Vallimont said.
Sunburst Projects was founded by her grandmother, Geri De La Rosa, to provide support to children diagnosed with cancer. In 1988, its Camp Sunburst launched its first summer camp designed to be therapeutic for HIV/AIDS children and their families.
Since 2011, it has worked with HIV-positive youth throughout Kenya “to address their social and psychological needs by building supportive communities free from stigma.”
Carr-Vallimont, a Petaluma, Calif., native, has a degree in art history from California State University at East Bay. Now a resident of Oregon Hill, she began working with Sunburst Projects in 2013.
Her grandmother charged her with creating a therapeutic art program for the children “to express the things they don’t want to show to the world … their fears, their status, anxiety,” she said.
“I’m not a great artist,” said Carr-Vallimont, 23, “but I’m great at making people feel comfortable about doing art. So if that’s how I can help, that’s how I can help.”
ART 180’s Guedri says community response to the exhibit has been positive — a point reinforced by a “leave a message” canvas for the children. “Your optimism is both inspiring and humbling,” one person wrote.
“Reading the inspiring stories of these young people in their own words challenges our own assumptions and stereotypes about the current state of the AIDS crisis in Kenya,” Guedri said.
The exhibit also features testimonials from HIV-positive young people who are walking less alone, and moving beyond fear, thanks to the support of adults and peers.
“I abruptly changed my way of thinking,” Jael Akoth wrote, “because I knew I had a life to live and dreams that needed to be accomplished.”

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