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Reflections from the Festival: Creativity and Healing

Throughout the Festival, participants elaborated on how their artistic and career pursuits facilitate both the expression of grief and healing. Clinical psychologist and drama therapist Valerie Knight values the importance of both celebration and sadness within the bereavement process. “I think we need to grieve in a way that shows our outrage, our pain, but also in a way that expresses the beauty of the person who passed,” she said. As new therapies offer support in the wake of devastation from AIDS, individuals are channeling their sadness into generating artistic representations of their pain through creative projects that address the issues surrounding the pandemic. The Creativity and Crisis program demonstrates that despite a past characterized by immeasurable sorrow and grief, hope for a brighter future exists in the form of art and acceptance.

Artist and designer Jane Solomon works in South Africa with groups of HIV-positive participants. Solomon describes the importance of creative production during the first Body Mapping workshop: “After making the body maps, we realized it was the actual art-making process that was most beneficial to participants. Since then, the approach has been developed systematically in many different countries.”

At the beginning of the pandemic, photographer Billy Howard embarked on a journey to capture the faces of HIV/AIDS. “I promised that I would do a book. I wanted to offer people an opportunity to put their words out there and hoped that somebody would listen. Ever since then I've been trying to get their words out to as many people as possible.” Through his powerful images, visitors at the 2012 Folklife Festival accessed the deeply personal and intimate portraits that reaffirmed the humanity and vulnerability of HIV/AIDS patients.

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross revolutionized common conceptions of grief and bereavement in her ground-breaking book, On Death and Dying. Yet how do denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance apply within the context of the AIDS epidemic? While mourning and loss is experienced differently by each individual, AIDS-related grief remains unique due to the stigma, shame and guilt historically attributed to the disease. Individuals affected at the beginning of the pandemic were often isolated and excluded from mainstream society. The grieving process was undertaken with a similar sense of secrecy and marginalization.

Without adequate emotional support, and with a certain oppressive silence surrounding the disease, prolonged depression and anger came to interrupt the normal bereavement process, even impacting the physiological well-being of survivors. The young ages of AIDS victims and its rapid spread in the population further intensified sorrow for families and friends. Today, awareness and outreach efforts have reduced much of the former shame once attached to AIDS.  Activists, educators, and artists continue to work together to better understand how people cope and accept grief in a world where AIDS resides in the public consciousness.

Katie Cardenas was an intern for the 2012 Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the Creativity and Crisis: Unfolding The AIDS Memorial Quilt program. She is a graduate of Vanderbilt University, where she studied Anthropology, Global Health, and Spanish.

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