Health Humanities Lab Highlights World AIDS Day through Student Art Exhibition

In Kearsley Stewart’s Fall 2017 course “Global Narratives of HIV/AIDS,” undergraduate students explored medical anthropologist Maria de Bruyn's portfolio of HIV/AIDS-related documents in the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library’s History of Medicine Collections. With the guidance of artist-in-residence Kelley Swain, they created art out of duplicated pages from the archive, selecting words to leave visible in order to reveal unexpected themes and ideas hidden within the original texts -- a method inspired by Tom Phillips' book A Humument. The resulting exhibition on the Student Wall in Perkins Library demonstrated the value of the lab’s humanities-based approach to global health care issues, encouraging students to critically respond to these archival materials through interacting with and eliciting new meanings from them.  

At an event in the library on November 30, 2017 in conjunction with World AIDS Day, students presented their artwork and explained their decision-making process. Some resisted assumptions in the original texts. Edom Tilahun, ’19, chose to superimpose a silhouette of a powerful black woman breaking her chains over a reproduction of a document containing disparaging statements about woman. “Even though black women are one of the biggest victims [of HIV/AIDS], I feel that they are the people who are in the shadows,” she explained. Ryan Fitzgerald, ’19, covered a page with tessellated arrows in order to represent the dialectics of power embedded in it: “The arrows facing one direction are supposed to represented progress, and the arrows facing another direction are supposed to express resistance to that progress.” Sarah Rapaport, ’19, incorporated a three-dimensional element into her artwork, knitting red yarn into a protective “blanket” with gaps in order to represent the HIV/AIDS patient’s vulnerability in interactions with medical professionals: "The whole process has made me more empathetic to the struggles of what it's like to live with HIV and AIDS.”

A series of keynote speakers gave remarks at the opening of the exhibition: Maria de Bruyn, the originator of the archive; Kelley Swain, a Health Humanities Lab artist-in-residence, who instructed the students in the humument process; and Alicia Diggs, spokesperson for the North Carolina AIDS Action Network, who said: “I saw myself and a lot of the people I know inside of each piece and each explanation…it’s just amazing.”

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