FROM RUBBER SONGS TO OPEN WOUNDS
by Jean Loup Pivin
One Day, in the midst of a crowd, I find a hand in my bag. A man's seemingly dead hand. Surprised and frightened, I take hold of it, and pull it out of the bag as one might remove any object from a bag. The hand is followed by an arm. The arm belongs to a body. An entire body, with a face. The face smiles at me, shrugging its shoulders with impotence, then disappears, taking its hand with it. Dicks are probably like this : without bodies, without minds. Vaginas, mouths, eyes : all without bodies, without minds. And if minds can stumble thousands of reasons for wearing preservatives, for remaining faithful, for understanding and helping those stricken with aids, bodies and their impulsions can exclude aids-patients, not use preservatives, continue as if they were bees gathering up the pollens of death.
Yet one can also gather pollen with a rubber. One can choose not to risk dying. One can also choose to risk dying from aids. This choice, however, belongs to the entire individual, to both his body and his mind. It belongs to no one else, neither to commentators on the radio, nor to doctors, not to professional do-gooders. The silence concealed by empty words is suicidal. One needs the silence of the soul, of the heart, of courage - not that of a mouth jabbering away.
On the island of Mauritius, when slavery was abolished, a troop of soldiers went to announce the good news to a group of fugitive slaves who had long taken refuge on Morne Island. When the slaves saw the soldiers coming, the men, women and children - without waiting to see what was going to happen - leapt off the top of a cliff, in this way escaping both being captured and having to resist. Nothing had been understood, nothing had been seen, nothing had been experienced, except the solitude of human beings who were being hunted down and who, when discovered, committed suicide. This metaphor is sufficient unto itself and cannot reveal any truths other than that of the image.
Yet one cannot help but saying that there comes a moment when reasons no longer exist - except for those found deep inside oneself. There are simply no more justifications for doing this or that.
And even if the outer world can be held responsible, what can that matter ? When a storm blows the roof off your house, you try to rebuild the roof, and make it stronger ; you aren't going to ask the wind to repair it. You make it stronger. Stronger. A society that refuses to build roots and that tries to get their roots repaired by those who destroyed them in the first place, simply remains roofless. Slavery, colonialism, infection by all sorts of imported evils (from Marxist materialism or liberal capitalism to totalitarian monotheistic religions, from armed hatred to the syphilis of love) - these concepts continue to wander through minds and words, are used as epithets more against oneself than against others, and seek to justify a deliberate impotence.
Africa long hid away the faces of aids so that they could be transformed them into cradles of rubber propaganda and the international community turned into clouds of dubious and often random figures. The first faceless death should have sufficed to become the martyr of an Africa refusing to look itself in the mirror : the face of death could at this point have been renamed the bankruptcy of the concept of society. By taking such pains to be tactful with some mysterious sense of social decency, has Africa really become the continent where nothing is said or done, doomed by genetic fatalities ?
The scandal is not that rich countries voluntarily or involuntarily neglect Africa in part, but rather that Africa is lethargic and refuses to begin taking matters into its own hands : in this framework, and only in this framework, should it solicit assistance from and put pressure on international public opinion, in order to obtain the same rights to health, to all forms of health, as are demanded elsewhere. For ten years, aids represented only a confrontation between Africa and its solitude - the solitude of the people who live there. Nothing was Africa's problem since traditional societies were considered capable of responding to everything. Everything has become our problem since traditional societies no longer respond to anything.
The time has come to envision new links based on the shifts in the notions of territory, color, and identity towards other notions resulting from the facts of city life - the city we all belong to. Societies of today (with their imaginary history) and even more so of tomorrow are forged from the distinct characteristics of individuals, alone before their futures. The body is isolated amidst a crowd of urges, desires and needs. The world over, individuals search for their kin yet only run into the solitude of societies unable to affirm new values liberated from sanguinary archaisms. Yet are these values really known ? Has the blindness of the past ever really allowed us to see them blossom here or there ? Don't the most threatening evils make it possible for these new values to be revealed ? Yet who today can express or give shape to them ? A politician ? A sage ? A poet ? A person stricken or deathly ill with aids, who is suffering in his body and soul ? Only the citizen emerging from his invisibility can trouble others by throwing into their faces the contagiousness difference. A contagious difference since it is less associated with the illness than with an obligation to see other individuals differently not as another person who needs to be pushed away, but rather as another person who is also "another oneself". Differences can no longer be considered, as before to be linked to culture, color, sex, or illness. It is rather as if one better became oneself by also being the color, sex and suffering of the another person.
Culture is not the art of packaging objective remarks - which, in the case of aids, would imply shaping message about preservatives or faithfulness - but indeed one of the ways of touching upon the deep sense of things and of our existence. It matters little whether the artistic form is beautiful or ugly. One hopes that the art is effective, but this quality cannot de demanded, either. It is the relationship between art and reality which needs to be affirmed, in its very nature, as essential. Truth cannot be in man's hands through an instrumentalized science or religion. Understanding a society involves affirming one's own membership in it, with both body and mind. Desiring to act upon society first demands that one act upon oneself, in order to let each day's despairs replace hopes for individual dignity and respect. In a society, artists are neither priests bearing a superior message nor holders of objective truths. They simply dwell in the world and let themselves be penetrated by the forces creating the world's meanings with no other effects of reality than artistic forms, ever-changing representations.
If things do not exist outside of the representation given to them, it is possible that aids - in principle an objective illness - does not exist outside of a person dying from it. When in addition, in Africa, one never dies of aids but instead of all sorts of opportunistic sicknesses and predestinations, it is understandable that a society refuses to let an objective illness affect the very essence of life : love and the desire to reproduce. And that a society considers this to be simply the way life is.
The dichotomy of AIDS as a scientific illness and aids as a social illness seem to call for simple roles : doctors for taking care of patients, thinkers and creative artists for persuasion and expression. The theory behind this dichotomy would assign art the task of saying the unsayable, since art, by its representations of the world, creates meaning in areas where reason becomes impotent. Yet to box up art in reason makes both reason fail and art vanish. A human being who thinks is the same human being who loves.
It is not the artist, who communicates, it is his work that offers a form in which some people will hear the world's echo. Artists who create works while thinking of aids are not militants of someone else's cause, but rather human beings who are suffering, like others, from the same evil. "I have aids" says Georges Adeagbo, meaning that no reality escapes him metaphorically without transfixing him. Artists are not the media of a society or a world, but rather the mediums of a society, of a cosmos, of the recesses and desires of the unconscious energies premonitory of another world. They become the cosmos, the society, the desires - through their works, during their creative moments. Through their works, they forge that other world in which wounds and lacerations, as well as the caresses of desire, wrap around the same enlightenments of reason. Here and there, a human being who in the final reckoning is each and every one of us - with his fears and his courage, his beliefs and his doubts, his loves and his hates, his reason and his irrationalism - replaces the believer who wants only to believe, the Cartesian who wants only to reason, the lover who wants only to love. And, depending on the human being in question, fear, reason, love or belief might become his body's balancing pole. An artist is no one else but each and every one of us. With or without the possibility of expressing himself through a work of art, a song or a dance step. The songs, dances, paintings, films, writings and photographs of African Artists and Aids simply express this other reality. While keeping in mind the idea that one, afterwards, will be a little less sure of oneself and little more sure of others.
Others henceforth considered to be so many of oneself.
So we will not die completely.
by Jean Loup Pivin
(text published in magazine Revue Noire RN19, African artists and Aids, December 1996)