In what ways can art and traditional art forms transcend the visual and function as tools of community engagement and health education?
The Siyazama project- which means “we are trying” in isiZulu- sought to cultivate just this beginning in the late 1990s with the vision of Dr. Kate Wells, a graphic designer and educator of Durban University, South Africa. Working closely with a group of female traditional artists in the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal, Wells sought to develop arts-based intervention and education techniques to tackle the complex, cultural stigmatization of HIVAIDS within rural South African communities that struggle with lack of information or misinformation. The Siyazama project conducted educational workshops with the help of activists, educators, health experts and traditional healers. The artists focused on the creation of four traditional visual art forms: wirework made from telephone wires, beadwork, dolls, and soft-sculpture narrative tableaux scenes. They created pieces like intricately woven and beaded dolls who represented those HIVAIDS positive, beaded traditional necklaces, and scenes of multiple dolls in settings meant for the education of how AIDS can be contracted and spread. One of the artists, Lobolile Ximba, was honored with the national South Africa VITA Craft Award, for her work.
These women, often the sole breadwinners of their families, relied on their artforms to live especially as it became increasingly popularized with tourism. In empowering local artists to communicate with and educate their communities through their artistic creations, the Siyazama project exemplifies the ways visual art can intersect and propel community-led education initiatives forward while promoting and sustaining traditional artforms and communities. After several years of collaboration and a growing partnership between the Siyazama Project and the MSUM, Wells, MSUM’s then arts education affiliate researcher Dr. Marit Dewhurst, and current MSUM Folk Arts and Quilt Studies curator Dr. Marsha MacDowell curated the exhibition “Siyazama: Traditional Arts, AIDS, and Education”. In 2012, University of KwaZulu-Natal Press published Siyazama: Art, Arts, and Education written by Wells, Dewhurst, MacDowell, and C. Kurt Dewhurst. With a long history of social justice-oriented arts projects, the MSU museum worked closely with community-based arts, AIDS researchers, and universities to create the exhibition and allow for the curation of a subsequent traveling exhibition.
In 2014 Wells donated her over 100 piece research collection, amassed over a 30-year period, to the MSU Museum; this strengthened an already developing health-related traditional arts collection. A National Endowment for the Humanities Preservation Assistance grant awarded in 2020 allowed the museum to house this collection in museum-quality cabinetry for their preservation and care. The Siyazama project highlights one of the ways the MSU Museum embraces the impact of social justice in museum collections, working to provide the local and international community with spaces for conversation and reflection, in addition to education.
Jesus on the Cross, made by Khishwepi, 1998-99, MSUM #2014:76.2
The "J" in every case stands for Jesus. The majority of the rural Siyazama women practice a form of religion which embodies and embraces strands of Christianity, Shembe religion and, of course, a range of important traditional beliefs and customary practices. As the crosses began to appear, the rural women claimed that they described how 'women were being crucified by AIDS.' They also stated that the figures on the crosses were mostly female, although not always, and which were often embellished with human hair. This hair, they said, was their own. - Kate Wells
Old Lady Walking With Stick, made by Zanele Shangaze, 2001 MSUM # 2014:76.54
The old lady is walking down the road holding a stick. Most people are scared of her as they know her to have special magical powers, and for this reason they all keep well away from her. – Zanele Shangaze
Beaded Vignette, made by Celani Noiyjeza, 2002, MSUM #2014:76.125
The Coffin Story. Every year the family awaits the arrival of their father and husband who works on the mines in Johannesburg. Every year, he comes home in December and always has extra cash, which means that the family can buy meat and celebrate his homecoming. But this year he came home in a coffin, He died of AIDS. The family is extremely worried about what will become of them and the mother is concerned that she, too, may be HIV positive. - Celani Noiyjeza