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Out of Africa, a positive ripple on AIDS

A film at the MFA details artist's healing campaign

Email|Print| Text size + By Robin Nixon
Globe Correspondent / November 25, 2007

In South Africa, talking about sex is taboo; making embroideries on the subject is not.

Tufts University graduate Kim Berman has put this knowledge to life-saving effect.

Her work is the subject of "A Ripple in the Water: Healing Through Art," a film that will be shown at noon Saturday at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts to mark World AIDS Day.

The documentary about Berman, made by Eileen Foti and Patricia Piroh, shows how the artist and activist has found a creative and culturally appropriate approach to AIDS education in South Africa.

South Africa's AIDS epidemic is among the worst in the world. According to the United Nations, nearly 1,000 South Africans die from the disease each day.

"The thing that is selling most in the markets are coffins," said Pamela Allara, who was Berman's academic adviser at Tufts and now is a volunteer assistant.

Narrated by Charlayne Hunter-Gault, "A Ripple in the Water" has been shown at more than 25 universities and museums across the United States and accepted into five international film festivals. At this year's Everglades International Film Festival in Dargle, South Africa, it won both the top prize and the gold award for best community service.

Showing the film in Boston on World AIDS Day is like coming full circle, Allara said, as this is where Berman solidified her vision of using crafts for social change.

In 2000, Berman was part of an early AIDS outreach project to a rural province in South Africa. She recalls how within minutes into an explanation of how HIV is spread, the female villagers, uncomfortable with the conversation, shooed the men out of the room. Afterward, they embroidered pictures of condoms and body parts with pink and purple cotton. They used these crafts to share their AIDS information with the men.

Berman said she was inspired by "the power of the visual image . . . to break the silence around HIV/AIDS."

Today, her Paper Prayers campaign teaches South African women to make prints and take photographs; they then use the pictures to discuss the role AIDS has played in their lives. The process lessens the stigma surrounding AIDS, said Foti, and has inspired many women to become auxiliary nurses for the HIV-positive people in their communities. "They put on white shirts and go door-to-door," she said.

Born in South Africa, Berman came to the United States for a summer holiday in 1983, when she was 23. During her visit, South Africa declared a state of emergency, prompting Berman to stay in Boston. Granted a student visa, she studied printmaking at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts through a joint program with Tufts. She was active with the antiapartheid struggle in South Africa and was overjoyed to see, via a news report televised in Boston, Nelson Mandela walking out of prison in 1990.

Eager to join her country during this time of "great promise," Berman sold her car and bought a printing press. In Johannesburg, she opened a nonprofit printmaking studio and founded Phumani Paper, an organization aimed at alleviating poverty. Using weeds and recycled materials, employees of Phumani Paper make handmade paper, journals, boxes and papier-mache figurines. By 2003, there were 21 workshops operating throughout South Africa.

A major challenge to this momentum was the loss of staff to AIDS. At some Phumani Paper workshops, nearly half of the workers died over three years. To help the survivors cope, Berman began the Paper Prayers campaign. Her grass-roots efforts are the focus of the documentary.

Despite its acclaim, the film embarrasses Berman. "The thing I feel most uncomfortable about . . . is the focus on me as an individual," she wrote in an e-mail. Uniformly described as humble by her many friends in Boston, Berman said she thinks of herself as "a collaborator." Over the phone from Johannesburg, she continuously referred to the help she has received from her many teachers, students, colleagues, and donors.

Berman's work has started a ripple effect, said Foti. Phumani Paper spread from Johannesburg to seven of South Africa's nine provinces. More than 1,000 people have been trained to make paper and as many as 460 people have become employed in a country where, according to South Africa's national statistics board, the unemployment rate hovers around 25 percent.

Her inspiration has even rippled across the Atlantic to schools in the United States.

Molefe Twala, 25, one of Berman's students in South Africa, taught printmaking and even a little Zulu to Boston elementary students at the Neighborhood House Charter School last month.

He also spent time at Boston Arts Academy, Rutgers University, and Lafayette College during his two-week visit to the United States, learning printmaking techniques and teaching methods.

"Here I am," he said in Davis Square on his last night here, "due to Kim's work." In his eyes, he said, Berman is a saint.

Her example inspired the filmmakers to introduce Paper Prayers in their own backyard.

At inner-city schools, many students face the same problems - HIV, poverty, violence - as South Africans, Foti said.

Six hundred students in urban New Jersey schools were shown "A Ripple in the Water" and asked to make their own paper prayers. The prints, displayed in the galleries of the Printmaking Council of New Jersey this summer, covered "such an emotional range," said Foti - from rainbows and hearts to guns and syringes.

But to Berman, it is not she who is creating the ripple. Art itself is responsible.

Following the documentary's screening Saturday at the MFA, Phumani Paper gift items and other artwork will be sold from 1 to 4 p.m. at the Museum School.

For a piece called "Reclaiming Lives," Berman asked 100 South African artists to make a print about a friend or relative who had died of AIDS. The prints, each about 8 inches by 10 inches, were gathered into a large checkerboard pattern. The collection was later embroidered as several wall hangings to be sold at the museum. Blank spaces were left to represent the adult population living with HIV.

Twenty percent of the squares are empty.

Information about Phumani Paper products can be found at phumanipaper.org.za.

Robin Nixon can be contacted at robinnixon@hotmail.com

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