When Hendrikus Bervoets learned one-in-five South Africans was HIV positive, he knew he had to try and do something about it.
It was then the London-based, internationally acclaimed artist decided to combine his love of teaching and art, to help educate those at risk.
“When we began, we did not have the antiretroviral drugs that we have now,” he said. At that time, many more people were dying of AIDS than do now. “For us, that was the beginning.”
In response Bervoets, founded Art for AIDS International, an organization that teaches workshops around the world, bringing together the worlds of art and social justice, all while raising money for the cause.
A lot may have changed over the past 15 years since it’s inception, but for Bervoets and his team, there’s still a lot to be done in many developing countries.
“If you check on the UNAIDS website, the prevalence of HIV is still very high and it’s very high among youth, specifically in African countries,” he explained. “There is still very much a need for us to continue, but in the meanwhile we’ve added to our story.”
Meaning, it’s not all just about the art.
“Ultimately, in the workshops, young people are creating pieces of artwork and it’s done in a way whereby they very subconsciously select images and play with them,” said Bervoets. “We give them a completely free piece of paper that they will ultimately work with and create beautiful collage art.”
After they’re completed, the masterpieces are turned into limited-edition prints and sold, with funds raised going to the cause.
The addition is the idea those most at risk of contracting the virus suffer from low self-esteem, a subject the organization’s workshops have begun to touch on.
“The belief is that if they knew what self-respect was, their behaviour would change to also respecting others,” said Bervoets. “So we talk a lot about low self-esteem and we talk about passion, determination and about the fact that you can accomplish anything in life if you aspire to do so.”
According to photographer Dave Chidley, passion is a word Bervoets uses often.
“It fits him to a T,” he said with a laugh. “I can’t think of very many people who can devote so much time and effort into something that is for others.”
Chidley became involved with Art for AIDS International after his daughter came home and told him a classmate’s father was taking a trip to Africa and was in need of some media coverage.
“I bought my ticket and fairly quickly I was on my way to a life-changing trip,” he said. “That first trip was back in about 2005. We learned a lot and we became great friends and it’s continued for years afterwards.”
The team has been able to work in seven different African counties so far and are expanding their operations to include a trainer program where local university students are taught to become facilitators.
According to Bervoets, there’s something quite invaluable about having young people pass on that education to their peers.
“It’s wonderful we continue to find young people who are very capable of teaching high school students about what we do,” he said. “I’ve been very fortunate (as an outsider) to have received respect from them.”
Even after travelling to Africa two to three times a year, for 15 years, Bervoets continues to appreciate a massive amount of satisfaction from the experience each and every time.
“Truly a part of my soul is also there, I feel very much at home there,” he said. “(This work) is something that needs to be done and I feel very fortunate that I am one of the people that helps make it happen.”