Kelly McCarty is PAI’s summer 2008 International Advocacy Intern.
After a month working at the office, three of PAI’s summer interns were happy to take a break from their computers to visit the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Off we went to view its newest exhibit, Access to Life, which captured the struggles of people infected and affected by HIV/AIDS and demonstrated the life-giving power of anti-retroviral drugs (ARVs). The exhibit is on display until July 20, 2008, and is a joint effort between Magnum Photos and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.
In all honesty, I went to the exhibit mainly for personal reasons. I jumped at the chance to intern at PAI because I believe deeply in the issues for which they advocate, but I’m passionate about my thesis on the ability art has to influence politics. I’ve spent the past year and a half poring over examples of art that sends powerful political messages. You would think I’d be used to the power of art by now.
But I am not, and I’m not sure I ever will be. That is probably a good
thing. This exhibit was the first I’d seen using art to motivate
political action around AIDS, and it absolutely reinforced my belief
that art can break down barriers and bring people together. I looked
at the faces of people from Africa, Latin America, and Eastern Europe,
and saw in them reflections of my own family and friends. Whether the
face was lined with worry or crinkled by a smile, I wanted to cry or
laugh with them.
My heart ached looking at the pictures of a 3-year-old Swazi boy,
infected at birth, and at the sobering regret on the face of a Russian
drug addict, infected by a needle shared with his brother. But the
women! My heart broke seeing the women. Too many women in different
countries but all in the same situation: unsuspectingly infected by
their unfaithful husbands and unknowingly infecting their children.
Our government drags its feet about contributing foreign aid to
HIV/AIDS prevention. I really want to believe that if we
walked a few senators through that art gallery and others like it,
voting records would change. After all, I’ve spent a year and a half
convincing myself that art does have that power.
More than making me sad, however, the exhibit got me excited. Excited
about the opportunities and the power that my generation and I have to
create change. The faces in the photographs thank the viewer for what
has been done, but plead with the viewer to do more. This summer, I
get to be a part of that “doing more.” I’ve been wading through
information about reproductive health and rights and slicing it down
into neatly-bundled packages to provide knowledge, and knowledge
creates change. While no one—not me, not PAI, not the US
government—can blot out any of the faces already in the exhibit, we can
prevent new faces from being added. That is, if we can change.