The fight of their lives

Art Aids Art celebrates 10 years of empowering South African women

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 12/6/2012

For 10 years, Dorothy Garcia and Tom Harding have dedicated themselves to a poor township in South Africa. Their Altadena-based nonprofit organization, Art Aids Art, has done invaluable good for the people living in Khayelitsha, an unfortunate lingering remnant of the apartheid era situated on the outskirts of Cape Town. In 2003, Garcia and Harding began buying beaded artwork made by otherwise unemployed South African women. They sold the artwork at home parties in Altadena and Pasadena and reinvested the profits back into Khayelitsha. Today, with more than 100 events held nationwide, the organization has helped generate more than $200,000 for the township community.
Five years after their first venture, with a group of Harvard students, they helped design and build a community center, eKhaya eKasi, which provides essential art, education and economic development programs that have become an instrumental backbone for the township. 
On Dec. 2, Mountain View Mausoleum in Altadena hosted a solo, chamber and vocal music concert to celebrate Art Aids Art’s 10th anniversary. The event also exhibited works by iconic South African artists such as Peter Clarke, considered one of the 10 greatest living artists in South Africa, and Jurgen Schadeberg, a German-born photographer whose early photos of Nelson Mandela and the struggle against apartheid were featured in the Weekly, the Pasadena Central Library and Pasadena City College’s Shatford Library, as well as internationally. More than 100 people attended the celebration, participating in a silent auction and purchasing South African art and handicrafts.  
Back to the motherland
In March, the Weekly traveled with Art Aids Art to South Africa to see the organization in action. Khayelitsha, home to 1 million people living in abject poverty, is one of the biggest townships in Cape Town. Most of its residents come from the Eastern Cape, a province of South Africa. The most depressing and unfortunate thing about the townships is that they still exist nearly two decades after the end of apartheid. 
There are different styles of housing in the townships. Some are government built and subsidized with satellite dishes on the roofs, while others are squat shacks crammed together over winding hills, providing a heartrending view of a tragically beautiful way of life. People living there can’t afford to leave the township, and this creates a palpable sense of a community based on survival. The lack of transportation, a system which has not changed much since apartheid, is especially difficult for women, which inspired Garcia and Harding to launch the Wheels for Women campaign. This program will bolster self-sufficiency for women in Khayelitsha looking to expand their small businesses.
“We’re going to start by getting a vehicle at eKhaya eKasi,” said Harding. “We have a whole community of women there coming up with design ideas and training each other, but when they need materials or try to go market their stuff, they have to rely on some man who owns a car or a taxi. So that independence they’re achieving is derailed by this lack of transportation.”
Every day across the small road from eKhaya eKasi, which opened on World Aids Day, December 1, 2008, a queue of women wait to have their beadwork and other craftwork judged by one buyer, who decides if she will purchase their artwork and then resell it at a market at a higher price. The problem is that there’s no opportunity for growth among the artisans.
At the modern, two-story eKhaya eKasi, it’s a different situation. Formerly unemployed women take classes, learn vital skills and develop their businesses at the locally run community center. Art Aids Art has also promoted artistic education, including fabric painting, silk-screening, beading and felting.
A global battle
One of the major issues facing residents of the townships is HIV, which remains a difficult subject to address. Following the 6th Annual HIV/AIDS Action Summit in September at City of Hope in Duarte, hosted by Assemblyman Anthony Portantino, keynote speaker Mondo Guerra teamed up with Art Aids Art to do just that.
The winner of Lifetime Television’s Project Runway All-Stars, who announced his HIV positive status on the show, Guerra placed an order with a group of South African mothers to make a limited edition pin of his Pozitivity design, a print he created that helped him win the show. The handmade pins, part of Art Aids Art’s Beads of Change initiative, can be purchased on his Web site,
“Art has always helped me overcome difficulties in my life,” Guerra said.  “I’m proud to support Art Aids Art to empower people living with and affected by HIV/AIDS through their art.”
The Art Aids Art founders are particularly proud of this collaboration, knowing it will make a difference for those living with HIV in South Africa as well as raise awareness here in the United States.
“It’s just an incredible collaboration between these people who are involved in the struggle against AIDS on opposite sides of the planet,” said Harding. “How great to see the women’s entrepreneurship being carried so far.”
Learning independence
Each year, Art Aids Art leads a group of volunteers to Cape Town to provide assistance to those affected by HIV and poverty. In January, several occupational therapists will be working with universities in South Africa. In the past, a group of Blair High students traveled to the township.
“I got so excited about seeing so much participation from Blair,” said Garcia. “We thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to take a group of public school children to see life in Khayelitsha?’ I think that’s really important. It gives them a chance to apply their skills in a situation that, like it did for me, can really change their lives. That’s another big fantasy from (Art Aids Art), to send people there and keep trying to make the connections, and keep trying to create common language.”
Experiencing the daily hardships that many South Africans live everyday can, indeed, be a transformative process. Garcia and Harding also strive to make sure the programs at eKhaya eKasi are locally run.
“The goal is not for us to be in charge,” said Garcia. “Using a parental analogy, you do what you need to do to have it hold itself up. That was its intention. It’s about finding ways to disassociate and, at the same time, be as structurally supportive as possible.”
This remains especially important as the organization gears up for the next decade. Harding noted that they try to make sure they’re not pulling all the strings from their headquarters in Altadena.
“Part of the excitement and anticipation of the next 10 years is to know that the people who are there are going to be just fine running the project, and the combination of the local community and the international contributions and energy that are coming in,” Harding said. “Who knows what the future holds?”