"I am an HIV-positive arts practitioner, writer and artist from Bloemfontein, South Africa," begins the biography of MC Roodt.
The 31 year-old artist was brought to New York for the month of March as the recipient of the sixth annual Visual AIDS Curatorial Residency Program, offered in partnership with Residency Unlimited. Launched in 2012, the program offers a one-month residency for a curator, art historian or arts writer interested in the intersection of visual art and HIV/AIDS.
An incredibly cerebral and eloquent artist, MC Roodt hails from a city that is roughly the size of Tulsa, Oklahoma, in an area that is devastated by the effects of the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
"I come from sub-Saharan Africa," MC said. "This region is still marked by the devastating effects of the HIV/AIDS pandemic approximately 35 years after it was identified. The latest statistics reflect that 12.6% of the population across South Africa is living with HIV. This percentage increases to over 14% in the province in which I live and work."
Although he is a painter, digital artist and print maker, MC works in both the art and health arenas. "I started out as an artist, actually, but very quickly moved into community spaces," he said. "My focus at the moment back home is, we take cues from the from the most serious public health issues that need to be addressed, HIV specifically, doing a lot of work around stigma and testing and campaigning. health messaging, PrEP campaigning."
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MC also works to combat other health problems related to HIV: drug abuse, mental health, tuberculosis, diabetes, high blood pressure, hypertension, and then food security. "At the moment," he said, "we're working on a really big food garden, which is also a land artwork."
MC explained that his work in South Africa engages the community in being part of creating. "It's about placemaking, fundamentally, creating a place for people to basically collectively work on this and be involved in that type of community narrative, that they take complete ownership with them," he said. "Plus the food security angle, and then also just a really great place for the community to get together and speak about things that impact on their health and the broader things. So, I like creating these kinds of spaces that have an artistic outcome that it's got a social outcome as well."
"It also has a very real political outcome, in the sense that as we are ... when you work on these long projects and if you work in the unlikely community then you start to create this sense of advocacy, you kind of start conversations," he emphasized, "but first of all, [these projects] unite people and unite people around public health issues as well."
MC became aware of Visual AIDS and the annual curator opportunity from the internet. "I've always been following them (Visual AIDS) on social media because they are doing really great work, and it's an amazing archive," MC explained. "So, about two years ago I wrote a proposal for the residency, and I was actually quite shocked that they chose me! And then they brought me through to New York this year."
MC spent his month in New York conducting research in the Visual AIDS archives with access to slides, digital images, publications and other resources. He dug through artistic archives of art and artists in various creative mediums to curate a transnational exhibit.
"They've basically opened the archives to me," MC said. "I mean, obviously, the archive has some amazing works, And I'm basically curating a show of the artworks in the archives."
"It's a great way to kind of archive the cultural record, at least in terms of visual arts for HIV and AIDS, which I think is important," MC continued. "As artists we often struggle. Being infected [with HIV] adds a different dimension and more hurdles or obstacles to overcome for artists. That's what I really like about the Visual AIDS archive, is it makes a space for that."
The exhibition will be presented on the Visual AIDS website later this year, and in South Africa at the annual Free State Arts Festival as well as in Perth, Australia.
"Some of the works are going back home to Bloemfontein, and then I'm pulling some works from the same theme from our national collection and then replicating the process in Australia as well," he said. "They're kind of like a process-orientated curation effort."
The display will explore different cultural responses to the HIV pandemic. It will include works from the Visual AIDS Artist+ Registry together with works from South African and Australian artists.
MC has created a theme for the exhibit around materiality, how HIV/AIDS has affected art and society. He said that the exhibit will show "how materiality speaks to HIV and AIDS and people's lived experiences by it. And the different pathways that materiality has into reframing their experience and making it less politicized and less mythologized, and a little bit more grounded in the physicality of it. My biggest hope for that is to go with this grounded approach to bridge some of the psychological distance that's surrounding people affected or infected with it (HIV)."
Something that MC noticed in his time in New York is the difference in cultural response to HIV/AIDS.
"I notice that there's more of a disconnect around the issue, at least in New York," he explained. "It seems like it's very much a part of the LGBTQ agenda, but not so much back home. It's more of a general thing. It's not so compartmentalized. And the conversation is, back home, a little bit more inclusive."
MC culminated his stay in New York with a talk titled "Curating Arts and Public Health" as part of his residency. Held at the LGBT Community Center in the West Village of New York City, the conversation reflected on his work in South Africa and research in New York City, followed by a conversation with South African photographer Pippa Hetherington and public health scholar Ian Bradley-Perrin.
MC's experience in being a Curatorial Resident for Visual AIDS was a fruitful one for the artist. "It's been really intense," he said, "but luckily I've been surrounded with a lot of really dedicated people that made it so much easier. What made it a little bit complex, though, was although I was based on working with the images in the archive in New York, I had to constantly cross-reference it with works from South Africa to make sure that the concept is applicable in both cultural contexts."
"I'm pretty happy with how things have turned out."
Visual AIDS will launch a virtual gallery of Roodt's work on May 1, 2018. To see the exhibit, click here.
Founded in 1988, Visual AIDS is the only arts organization fully committed to raising AIDS awareness and creating dialogue around HIV issues today, by producing and presenting visual art projects, exhibitions, public forums and publications -- while assisting artists living with HIV/AIDS. They are committed to preserving and honoring the work of artists with HIV/AIDS and the artistic Contributions of the AIDS movement.