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Bringing condoms out of the closet

[Senegal] Adriana Bertini, a Brazilian artist, Bertini toiled for 365 hours on this dress, its top made of unopened condoms and the long skirt of open ones. She is becoming more and more known in her native country and in international activism circles fo
Dresses made of condoms - reminding people about protection (Pierre Holtz/IRIN)

Adriana Bertini is a woman with a mission. She intends to turn condoms, which she considers the best form of protection against AIDS, into an everyday object that both men and women use as naturally as a piece of clothing.

At the hands of this Brazilian artist, thousands of condoms come together to form a sumptuous evening gown, an elegant trouser suit, a flamboyant sheath dress - whose name was never more appropriate - or even a wild samba outfit. It's a feast of sartorial delights with only one common ingredient: latex.

"My clothes are a militant act," according to Bertini who is becoming more and more known in her native country and in international activism circles for her unique contribution to the fight against the HIV/AIDS pandemic which is devastating Brazil and Africa.

In 2004, the International Association of Physicians in AIDS Care (IAPAC) honoured the 33 year-old with the Nkosi Johnson Community Spirit Award - named after an HIV-positive South African boy - in recognition of 10 years of artistic activism.

"It's rewarding to know that my art has been recognised all over the world," she said. "I felt the need to create a new form of thinking, to try to wake people up to the reality of the situation, to make them aware of the risks they face with HIV and AIDS."

Invited to the Senegalese capital Dakar by UNESCO to take part in an HIV/AIDS conference, Bertini felt she had a lot to learn about a continent she was visiting for the first time.

"I've felt pretty troubled since I got here," she admitted, standing near her five evening gowns and trouser suits displayed rather incongruously between the other, less flamboyant exhibits at the conference.

"I feel there's a lot to say about condoms but, at the same time, it's very difficult: people don't seem to understand what I'm doing," she says.

[Senegal] Taking part, in the Senegalese capital Dakar, in an HIV/AIDS conference, Adriana Bertini, a Brazilian artist, met African public for the fist time. Standing in front of the 6,500 multicoloured condoms that make up the flower dress, a man seems t

Pierre Holtz/IRIN
[Senegal] Taking part, in the Senegalese capital Dakar, in an HIV/AIDS conference, Adriana Bertini, a Brazilian artist, met African public for the fist time. Standing in front of the 6,500 multicoloured condoms that make up the flower dress, a man seems t
http://www.irinnews.org/
Mercredi, novembre 30, 2005
[Senegal] Taking part, in the Senegalese capital Dakar, in an HIV/AIDS conference, Adriana Bertini, a Brazilian artist, met African public for the fist time. Standing in front of the 6,500 multicoloured condoms that make up the flower dress, a man seems t
Amazed by the thousands of condoms in this dress

Dialogue is key

Suddenly, a man's nervous laughter interrupts the artist. Standing in front of the 6,500 multicoloured condoms that make up the flower dress, he seems totally flabbergasted.

"Why did you make that?", he asks.

With the help of Bertini's friend and interpreter, psychologist Lia Vanier Schuanan, the artist tries to get a conversation going with the man.

"What do you think of it?" she asks, clearly eager for answers but all she gets is a smile.

It's for moments like these, when she can really get at the issue of condom use in the global South, that Bertini toiled for 365 hours on this dress, its top made of unopened condoms and the long skirt of open ones.

"I really need to know how people understand this multidisciplinary work," she says. "It's important to me."

Once, she recounts, a man came to thank her because one of her exhibitions in Sao Paolo, where she lives with her photographer husband, gave him a chance to talk about sexuality with his 16 year-old son for the first time.

"While they were out for a walk, he pretended to happen upon the exhibit and then used it as an opportunity to discuss some difficult issues," she says.

Brazil's health ministry has seen a lot of potential in Bertini's work for a largely Catholic country where condoms suffer from bad press. It is currently financing a study, headed by Schuanan, on the impact of her work on Brazilian behaviour.

"We've done some good work with the health ministry and other actors in HIV/AIDS prevention. They support my work because they realised what I could achieve in terms of advocacy," she says, admitting that her approach has had some success, especially with HIV-positive youth who participate in artistic workshops.

For these reasons, two of the dresses exhibited in Dakar have been given to UNESCO's Senegal office to help start a national dialogue.

"I'm not doing this to make money but rather as a social act, as art aimed at others. The dresses are meant to promote discussions in schools and universities," says Bertini who never planned this direction for her career.

"In the beginning, I worked with condoms but not on AIDS as such," recalls the designer who started her career at Brazil's fashion houses. "The AIDS issue came out of my work with HIV-positive children. I realised that I could use fashion as an element of AIDS sensitisation."

The dresses are conceived of as sculptures and, because the rubber goes bad, only last a year. They're only worn at fashion shows or are exhibited in museums and at AIDS conferences. Brazil shows them off regularly and Sweden will follow suit in 2006 as Senegal is doing today.

"I would like my art to be visible everywhere, to remind people that they need protection when they have sex," Bertini says. "My idea is to promote condom use not as a commercial fashion but as a conceptual fashion, whether on a conscious or unconscious level. The idea is to wear them at the right time, not just as a trend."

Discrimination hampers funding

The proceeds from the sales of dresses - prices range from $700 to $5000 - go directly to organisations involved in the fight against AIDS. Bertini and her HIV-positive apprentices do not make their living directly from their work, depending instead on sponsors.

The material comes from condom manufacturers. A number of deals exist with factories and organisations that provide defective or smuggled merchandise destined for incineration or disposal - practices that this former Greenpeace activist cannot abide.

Bertini uses a technique developed over a decade - she cuts, shapes, melts, glues, colours and sculpts, sometimes using live models - to adapt what she terms "Brazilian creativity" to turn the condom into an object that evokes pleasure.

"Condoms are seen very negatively in our societies as a barrier to pleasure," she says. "I want to talk about love with the condom as a way for people to be together."

"When I work, I think a lot about the fear that AIDS causes in people, in my friends, who are impacted directly because of their past behaviour and the taboos and prejudice they face," she adds.

And Bertini is the first to suffer from this discrimination.

"People think that, because I'm interested in condoms, I must be HIV-positive myself," she says. "Some organisations won't deal with me for that reason, people don't want to talk to me or touch me out of fear of getting AIDS...A number of doors are closed to me as a result."

So, while a steady supply of condoms is never a problem, getting funding for the hours spent on each dress can be a real challenge.

"I'd like to set up local workshops where clothes can be produced here in Senegal and to create fashion with Senegalese students because, while they're producing, people talk about sexuality and AIDS," she explains, adding that a lack of funding makes carrying out such projects difficult.

And yet, Bertini is full of ideas to turn the condom into the very thing that fashion has taught her: a symbol of sharing and good times.

To that end, other than the launch of a fashion line for men - "Garments as Body Protection" - she hopes to start up a "Venus House" that would display sofas, beds and kitchens as well as sculptures.

"Everything will be made of condoms with the aim of introducing them into people's everyday lives. The idea is to build an educational archive with a library, movies and lectures aimed at teens and the elderly," she says, hoping thereby to make it easier for discussions about sexuality to take place within the family.

"You understand, condoms must become as basic as a pair of jeans and as necessary as a great love."


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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