This week, Urban Times and GV Art kicked off the second in the Trauma series: a series set to explore the tale of scientific traumas via art. The focus: Invisible Traumas. Hosted by GV Art at their gallery in Marylebone, London, we were joined by speaker Rachel Gadsden,  contemporary visual artist, and special guest, Gill Lloyd, co-director of Artsadmin in London.

Rachel began her talk by saying that “we all have an invisible trauma but no one talks about it”. Having her own unseen disability, Rachel is injected in her stomach every minute with medication that keeps her alive. Rachel stated that this was, in fact, the most valuable gift she had been given because her trauma makes her “conscious of being alive”. In this regard, her artwork has set to explore the tale of fragility, hope and survival. It was astonishing to find out that Rachel’s trauma had begun infringing on her eye sight and she is now partially sighted. Despite how hard one imagines this to be for anyone to discover, let alone an artist such as herself, Rachel was brimming with optimism, explaining that art comes from the subconscious rather than from physical realms.

Rachel at the Liberty Festival, Trafalgar Square.

Nondumiso's bodymap

On visiting an anthropology museum one day, Rachel came across a unique bodymap and she knew as she stood in front of it that whoever painted it shared some common humanity with her. She had this sense of urgency that she needed to find the person responsible for this work and after some months searching, she received an email from a woman saying, “I’m Nondumiso Hlwele and I believe you are looking for me.” Rachel was right, this lady did indeed have something in common with her; they both had invisible traumas. Nondumiso has HIV. In fact, Nondumiso was one of the first people from the Khayalitsha township in Cape Town to get antiretroviral treatment. Nondumiso was a member of the Bambanani Group which was formed in 2002 to participate in the creation of memory books and boxes aimed to help people come to terms with their diagnosis, to disclose their HIV status to their families and children and to begin the planning for the future.

In January 2011 Rachel was awarded the International Unlimited London 2012 Cultural Olympiad Commission which gave her the opportunity to launch her Unlimited Global Alchemy Project. This project has allowed Rachel to work in conjunction with the Bambanani Group in Cape Town. Rachel stated that her commission aims to create:

  1. dynamic artworks
  2. a film. As many people will not be able to visit the Bambanani Group, Rachel wants the world to be hear their story.
  3. a live performance in celebration of, well, LIFE.
  4. stronger online presence to increase awareness of the artwork.

Some members of the Bambanani Group

Rachel's depiction of Tobani

Rachel had so many heart-wrenching, yet inspiring, anecdotes to share about the people of the Bambanani Group. One lady was forced to breastfeed her baby by her mother despite having HIV. She later died of an opportunistic infection. Tobani, the only man of the Group, took it upon himself to set up a Burial Society in order to give honourable burials in the Township. Rachel described Tobani as having a strong heart which makes up for his physically weak exterior and this is captured in her artwork of him; she went so far as to say, “if you’re strong you will survive”.

Describing her piece on exhibit at GV Art Gallery, Ubuntu, Rachel explained her choice of velvet as the background: its texture has always reminded her of human skin. Using this as a backdrop for the piece was Rachel’s attempt at trying to get under the skin of these invisible traumas. Her use of chalk is to illustrate the impermanence of life, and just how fragile it really is. Her artwork is jaw-droppingly inspiring so it’s no wonder that Freedom to Create included Rachel’s painting of one of the Bambanani Group in their top 50 paintings.

Rachel Gadsden, Ubuntu

Rachel Gadsden and the Bambanani Group. Commended by Freedom to Create

Next to speak was Gill Lloyd, who, given her knowledge and keen interest in South Africa, spoke about how the political architecture of South Africa contributes to the huge problem of HIV/Aids; having a higher rate than any other nation. It is recorded as being present in 18% of the adult population (Source: Wikipedia) but this figure is modest as it evidently doesn’t include those that haven’t been tested. Gill started by asking what we supposed the average life expectancy is in South Africa. 49. Yes, you read that right. She then went onto explain that due to the euphoria surrounding the emergence of a Black government following the apartheid, they did not want the HIV/Aids epidemic to cloud this optimism so chose to put prevention campaigns on the back-burner. Furthermore, during apartheid, huge amounts of migration occurred which increased incidences of the virus. People were often banished away from their families to start new lives in other townships. Here they had little choice other than to start another family and so were quick to pick up the virus.

Khayalitsha Township

Gill explained that the lack of testing is also a major contributing factor to the epidemic. Many people prefer to withhold from being tested due to the shame and secrecy surrounding HIV/Aids. Despite the high incidence of the disease, people are bullied and ostracized by the community if they are known to have it. This means sufferers often prefer not to get tested so that they don’t have to deal with the truth: not knowing becomes the solution. Meanwhile, the presence of antiretroviral drugs has distorted the perception amongst the younger generation. Gill and Rachel discussed that the mentality of the younger age groups needs to change as they see HIV almost as a ‘norm’ in society; and one that is treatable. This is a far cry from reality as despite the medical advancements we are still not close to a cure. Perhaps we need to revert to the very sinister advertising campaigns featuring tombstones as seen in the Aids: Don’t Die Of Ignorance campaign sponsored by the Central Office of Information for Department of Health in 1987:

And why aren’t condoms widely used like in Uganda? Another Apartheid phenomenon. Because there existed such a prejudice against Black people, the South African government saw condoms as a way of the White capitalists stopping the population growth of the Black community. Gill stated that she wouldn’t want to be an apologist but that once someone has visited South Africa, one can understand better why the situation is as bad as it is. In order to get access to condoms it’s not as easy as it is in cities or even small towns that we’re accustomed to. This requires someone getting into a taxi or van; we underestimate the security of convenience…

Moreover, the President of South Africa following Mandela was Mbeki who refused to accept medical evidence of the HIV/Aids virus existing. In fact, he publicly rejected it saying rather that it was ‘bound to happen’ due to the poverty in such areas:

Mbeki: “A matter that seems to be very clear in terms of the alternative view, is what do you expect to happen in Africa with regard to immune systems, where people are poor, subject to repeat infections and all of that. Surely you would expect their immune systems to collapse.” Source:

Of course, with the President of such a nation denouncing its existence this inevitably meant that its prevention was harder to ensure than ever. His words, however, do ring true in the sense that poverty is an immense problem in South Africa. The irony then lies in the fact that when there is a funeral in the township this might be a person’s only opportunity to be fed.

So where to from here? Rachel’s work seeks to get this message out worldwide. She wants her Unlimited Global Alchemy project to be a vehicle for telling the story of the Bambanani Group: to teach others like them to have courage, and, perhaps, others more fortunate than them to appreciate all they have.

For the full press release of the event click here.

First in the Trauma series: Art and Alzheimer’s


The New Scientist: Self Portraits Of A Declining Brain

Gizmodo: How An Artist Painted His Decline Into Alzheimer’s

Next in the Trauma series: Donate to Science?

Unlimited is principally funded by the Olympic Lottery Distributor and is delivered in partnership between London 2012, Arts Council England, the Scottish Arts Council, Arts Council of Wales, Arts Council of Northern Ireland and the British Council. Unlimited Global Alchemy is produced by Artsadmin. 9000961761