World AIDS Day

Use of art sheds new light on AIDS issues

November 28, 2011

When preparing for this year’s Worlds AIDS Day commemoration on Dec. 1, Jon Henry, ’12, wanted to do something different. The lectures of the past weren’t resonating, and he found that many people lacked an understanding of current AIDS issues.

“We needed to go back to square one,” Henry says. “People don’t know the politics behind HIV. They had poor information on the subject. We decided that this year we had to be more robust.”

The planning committee settled on a theme—“Heart, Body and Spirit”—that pulled in departments around campus that could lend a new perspective.  Inspired by his own interest in art politics, Henry led a major focus on the arts, as both a more accessible message medium, and a way to appeal to the emotional side of AIDS.

“Arts are usually taken out of politics and they’re just viewed aesthetically,” Henry says. “However, arts can be highly political and highly social. It’s sometimes a better form of communication for such a complex issue like HIV. It’s a lot more approachable than a lecture.”

Arts-oriented events range from a moment of silence at the Modlin Center for the Arts’ Gretchen Parlato concert and a Day With(out) Art exhibit at the University Museums, to an artistic visualization of the science of the HIV virus at Gottwald Center for the Sciences and a documentary screening.

"We believe that the arts should be a tool for communicating about the human perspective," says Deborah Sommers, executive director of the Modlin Center. "The arts are the best of our human nature and the very essence of human expression. The arts, by their nature, have the power to reach a wider group of people. Since this is still such a critical issue in the world and a crisis, it was an opportunity [for the Modlin Center] to be part of a larger communication process to remind the pubic that we still need to think about this health issue today."

While the day leans heavily on the arts, standard events—such as HIV testing at UR Downtown, condom distribution at the Student Health Center, and a lunch discussion hosted by WILL—still play a part. A display on sexual health, fitness and the politics of HIV at the Weinstein Center for Health and Wellness, and a book display at Boatwright Memorial Library also offer opportunities for education on campus. The University also is participating in the citywide RVA Remembers program at Brown’s Island. “I hope that people become educated on the virus, and maybe we can lead up to a greater discussion about the fact that people are still getting infected in the U.S., even though we have the resources and money to fight it,” Henry says.

The day closes with a time of spiritual reflection at the Office of the Chaplaincy’s community moment of silence. Students, faculty, and staff, as well as members of the city community, gather to share their personal experiences with HIV/AIDS and a period of reflective meditation.

“We’ll invite people to share their own stories,” says Craig Kocher, University Chaplain. “[The event] takes away from the clinical side, from HIV/AIDS as a public health issue, and gives it a human face. It’s a more compassionate and holistic approach.”