The Positive Side

Spring/Summer 2006 

Putting Hope on the Map

In an art book of striking self-portraits called body maps, 12 South African women living with HIV reveal how the art form helped them regain their courage and dreams

By David McLay

"WHEN I LOOK AT THIS BODY MAP, I feel like my life is not finished,” says Babalwa Cekiso, a woman with HIV who shares her story in Long Life… Positive HIV Stories. The 8x11-inch book recounts the tales of 12 South African people with HIV/AIDS (PHAs), told through reproductions of vibrant, full-size self portraits called body maps. “I feel good actually, explaining how I feel inside, certain feelings and memories that I don’t normally talk about.” In Cekiso’s body map, news clippings of South Africans’ struggle to obtain antiretrovirals surround her body’s outline. But inside, a deep red heart holds her fear of dying before her children are grown.

Jonathan Morgan, a clinical psychologist formerly at the University of Cape Town, and researcher Kylie Thomas were the driving force behind Long Life. After learning of body maps from Cape Town artist Jane Solomon, Morgan and Thomas understood that the maps could also empower PHAs to take control of their health. Under Solomon’s direction, Cekiso and other PHAs from the townships outside Cape Town completed the process of body mapping, the results of which went on to fill the pages of Long Life.

The women started by outlining their bodies on large sheets of paper. Then they added images and words to depict their lives and to express their thoughts and feelings about living with HIV. Although facing bad memories and fears often hurt, the result was therapeutic and beautiful. “This picture and this project tells the story of my life: the burns and the bites and the TB, but not only bad. Except for those marks, my body is jumping and shows I’m alright and I love people,” says Bulelwa Nokwe, describing her leaping blue silhouette with a strong tree growing inside (shown here).

As access to antiretrovirals has improved in South Africa, body maps have been adapted to meet the challenges of long-term therapy. Using a tracing book, which contains a small body map to be drawn on regularly, PHAs can draw changes in their health, such as a skin infection that grows or shrinks. They can refer to the drawings when visiting their doctor. In cases where the PHA and doctor speak different languages, tracing books could be life-savers.

Body maps know no boundaries and have travelled to North America. Here in Canada, Allison Cope at HIV/AIDS Regional Services in Kingston, Ontario, has led several local body mapping workshops. All PHAs have “a unique story to tell,” she says, “and body mapping facilitates this storytelling through art. Body mapping helps PHAs make visible that which ordinarily is invisible to others, and sometimes, invisible to themselves.”

CATIE and REPSSI (Regional Psychosocial Support Initiative for Children Affected by AIDS, poverty and conflict), where Jonathan Morgan now works, plan to collaborate — to connect CATIE’s vast HIV health and treatment resources to the power of body maps and tracing books.

Visitors to AIDS 2006 in Toronto can see slide presentations of the Long Life body maps by visiting the REPSSI booth in the exhibit hall. REPSSI promotes and develops resources and strategies to help children affected by HIV/AIDS, poverty and conflict in 13 countries in east and southern Africa. The body maps are also online at www.memorybox.co.za.

Illustration: Bulelwa Nokwe