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The Women of Visual AIDS: HIV-Positive Women Making Art

Judy Ann Seidman, AIDS mural click for full image
Judy Ann Seidman Judy Ann Seidman, poster for South African political activist group Judy Ann Seidman, Living With the Epidemic, 1997
A mural created by Judy Ann for an HIV/AIDS activist organization in South Africa. Judy Ann Seidman, AIDS Mural
All images are the property of the artist and may not be copied or reproduced without the express written permission of the artist and Visual AIDS.  

Judy Ann Seidman:

During her travels from her hometown of Norwalk, Conn. to countries throughout central and southern Africa, Judy Ann Seidman has seen it all: political upheaval, intrigue, romance, violence and despair. "The politics, the personal stuff, the art and the HIV, they're all interlinked for me," she says.

Judy, who has been painting all her life, was diagnosed with HIV in 1990, after her partner -- a member of the South African anti-apartheid movement -- suddenly fell seriously ill. In 1993, when Judy's partner died from AIDS complications, she flew back to the U.S. to visit her family.

"I wanted them to see I was well and working," she explains, "not to imagine I was dying out there alone. They have been incredibly supportive." From 1993 on, Judy has been "out" about being HIV-positive, and starting in 1998, she even felt comfortable enough to disclose her status in educational publications in South Africa.

Judy separated from her husband of nine years in 1981: "I felt it was a very good decision; we both felt happier living apart, and we managed to divide child care evenly for years." Her two children moved to England for four years while she stayed in Botswana, as she thought that they might be at risk from South African attacks. "This was hard on me," she says, "and on them. But I had friends and comrades and loved ones in Botswana still, during that period [the late 1980’s/ early 1990’s]." In 1992, her children returned to live with Judy in South Africa. As they have grown up, her children (now adults) have been supportive, understanding, and have even become HIV/AIDS activists: "They have been a major factor in my being able to "live positively" with HIV.

Political struggle is intensely connected to artistic expression for Judy. The art collective she worked with in Botswana from 1981 to 1985, the Medu Art Ensemble, still provides much of the foundation for her artistic perception and production: "I have no doubt that my own work improved beyond recognition through that experience. Much of that time was overwhelming, transcendent, creative." Although "the destruction of Medu by a South African government raid was horrific," she says, "and people I knew, worked with and cared for were killed, this did not negate the positive experiences, but perhaps underlined them."

Her dedication to the anti-apartheid movement never flagged throughout these turbulent times: "We -- myself, the people I worked with in Southern Africa -- believed whole-heartedly in the struggle to end the racist regime in South Africa, and build a free society. And, of course, in 1990 we won that struggle."

After battling pneumonia, bronchitis and thrush in 1996 and watching her T-cell count slip to 185, Judy began what was then experimental three-drug-therapy with protease inhibitors in South Africa. She also learned Tai Chi (which she still practices), stopped smoking, and cut down on drinking alcohol. She responded well, until she came down with tubercular meningitis in 2002.

"Apparently, the antiretrovirals blocked the tuberculosis (TB) from developing except in the spinal cord and brain. I showed a range of symptoms from headaches to occasional blindness and paralysis, which went on for months. My doctors in South Africa decided it might be "a result of menopause" -- they later told me that they did not consider TB as I did not have normal TB symptoms." Judy ended up in a hospital in Boston for six weeks, where she learned that she would have died in a matter of weeks, had she not been diagnosed and treated. Luckily, Judy’s TB was not drug-resistant ("ordinary TB" is still epidemic in South Africa, some 25% of the population carries it") and the treatment was completely successful.

As of July 2001, Judy ’s T-cell count had rebounded to 854 and her viral load was under 1,000. Now, in early 2007, Judy is on a fairly straight-forward antiretroviral regime, cured of TB, and completely healthy, and taking two (combination) pills a day. Her T-cell count is 1035 ("that is not a typo") and viral load is "nil."

Judy continued to paint throughout the 1990s, though she did not exhibit her work. In the early '90s she became involved -- anonymously -- with the nascent South African HIV/AIDS movement, working on graphics, posters and other publicity materials.

Judy's 1998 work "Living With the Epidemic" appears in Visual AIDS' Positively Art 2001 Calendar. She was inspired to paint it while watching people dancing at a shebeen -- a local drinking spot -- in the South African capital of Johannesburg. "I remember thinking that 20-plus percent of the dancers were HIV positive," she recounts, "and most did not know it. But we all shade our enjoyment and our openness to the dancing, and to our relationships, around awareness of HIV."

Judy remains heavily involved in both politics and art today. Now 55 years old ( "and planning on making it to 94 -- if global warming doesn't intervene"), Judy creates two to four new oil paintings each year -- partially for her own interest, she says, and partially because "I adore the colors and the humanity that comes through every now and then, even in my own work."

She has taken up illustration, occasionally writes pamphlets and books, and works as a freelance artist for the South African trade-union movement as well as HIV/AIDS activist groups. Over the last two years, she has written a book entitled "Red on Black" on the South African poster movement, which she hopes will be in print by the end of 2007. The book features a brief section on posters about AIDS in South Africa. More recently, she has been working part-time with the South African History Archives (SAHA), curating their poster collection, which includes over 5,000 posters from South Africa.

In October 2006, she organized an exhibit of the SAHA posters dealing with HIV and AIDS to accompany a conference held by civil society organizations in Johannesburg (including Treatment Action Campaign, COSATU, and a few churches). She hopes to turn the HIV poster exhibition into a moving exhibition over the next year, and eventually to put the posters on the web.

In 2003, Judy completed and published a book about living with HIV called "My Comrade With AIDS is Still My Comrade," published by the South African Congress of Trade Unions (COSATU).

As if this wasn’t enough to keep her busy, Judy recently finished editing another book -- this one focuses on the life of her grandmother, who was a well-known visual artist, pacifist and feminist in the 1920s.

Currently, the Johannesburg Art Gallery is holding a retrospective on the group she worked with in Botswana in the early 1980s, in particular, visual artist Thami Mnyele (who was killed by a South African army raid in Botswana in 1985). Judy was also featured in an exhibition in Angola in 2006 that consisted of her series of paintings of jazz musicians.

As of 2007, Judy has known that she is positive for almost 17 years (although she believes that she has probably carried it for closer to twenty). She maintains a fiercely optimistic attitude, and, in the face of past and presence challenges, maintains: "We cannot forget the victories."

Judy Ann Seidman can be reached via e-mail at judyann@iafrica.com.



 

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