May 11, 2004

Africa Display Unmasks HIV Fears

By Helen Tchepournova


Photo by Alexander Belenky / SPT

An exhibition on display in St.Petersburg offers a glimpse into realities of life for HIV-positive residents in the Kibera slums of Nairobi just as the disease has increasing relevance in Russia .

"Here and in the U.S. people are so afraid to be open about their fears, but in Kenya they are not afraid to speak up," Mark Scheflen, artistic director of Kiboko Projects said. "But hiding it keeps spreading the disease. Information is vital for survival."

Through May 17, Kiboko Projects - a New York-based, non-profit organization - presenting an exhibition of five diverse projects created through workshops with artists, students and families in the U.S. , Kenya and St. Petersburg, including displays of handpainted masks, insightful photodiaries, and videos, at the Artists' Union of Russia Exhibition Center at 38 Bolshaya Morskaya Ulitsa.

Kiboko Projects, started in 1999 as a labor of love by Scheflen, a New York-based visual artist, has grown into a flourishing cultural organization that has since sponsored workshops, exhibitions, and cultural exchange programs on three continents.

Its stated aim is to provide "opportunities for artistic and creative expression to individuals, some of whom have had limited access to this experience."

This has meant reaching out through art and education to tell the unfiltered stories of people of all ages and diverse backgrounds, from people with HIV/AIDS, physically- and mentally-handicapped people, children from neglectful families, immigrants, and ex-offenders, to students and professional artists.

St. Petersburg was first introduced to a series of cultural exchange workshops organized by Kiboko Projects between children in America , Africa and Russia with "My Life ... My City," an exhibition put together in the run-up to the last summer's 300th anniversary celebrations. However, Kiboko Projects has since expanded its operational scope.

The current exhibition documents recent projects organized by the charity, as well as including elements from previous shows. The exhibition showcases compelling stories captured on video in Kenya, such as that of a family of children aged 13-18 orphaned by AIDS, a young woman who had turned to prostitution to pay her school fees, and a 29-year-old father of four struggling to ensure that his children will be taken care of after his anticipated death from AIDS.

"My name is Henry Ombasa. I am 29, married and blessed with four children. I'm HIV positive. But there's no hope since I come from a poor slum area in Nairobi," writes one man in a Photodiary that shows him volunteering for an AIDS- prevention organization, caring for his fellow people affected by HIV/AIDS in the Kibera slum - home to 1.2 million people who lack such basic amenities as toilets, running water, or electricity.

"People need to know about it, that's when the stigma starts to fall off," said Jill Raufman, Kiboko Projects' executive director. She and Scheflen have been working on extending the Kiboko concept to further parts of the world.

In St. Petersburg in 2002, with Gaoordi, a local non-profit advocacy group, a 12-session workshop was organized for five families with disadvantaged children. It resulted in moving video interviews documenting mask-making, with participants explaining the symbolism of their masks. Many parents candidly communicated their personal experiences of raising physicallyand emotionally-challenged children in Russia directly to Americans in similar situations.

Aside from the current show, Kiboko Projects is embarking on two new workshop series, in conjunction with Lions Great Bear, a nonprofit association from St. Petersburg . This time Chechen war victims and their families, and adults and children with HIV/AIDS, will take part.