DURBAN, South Africa – After 20 years of doing “condom couture,” Adriana Bertini knows she can make a dress out of old condoms in about 50 hours.
But after years of carting bags packed with condom collectibles – including a wedding dress made from 80,000 sheaths – around the world, the Brazilian designer never knows how long it will take to get through the airport.
“I’m always stopped at customs and I will be there for many hours because the dogs are trained to smell the latex,” to sniff out drug smugglers, Bertini says. “Sometimes people will have drugs in their stomachs, swallowed in condoms, so they are trained to smell,” she says, standing next to her latest collection of pink gowns at last month’s International AIDS conference in Durban, South Africa.
Bertini’s first encounter with what she calls “rejected condoms” came when she was eight years old and a beach cleanup volunteer for the environmental charity Greenpeace.
She wondered why people would discard these items on beaches and what happened to them afterward.
Only years later, as a volunteer helping HIV-positive children, would she combine her desire to save the planet from pollutants with a will to save lives by promoting condom use.
“I make dresses of condoms, and sculptures, and now I teach young people how to do this,” she says.
Bertini could make tens of thousands of dollars from selling her work to galleries and museums. But mostly, she donates her dresses to charities that will make people on the streets start seeing, touching and hopefully wearing condoms, or at least start talking about them.
From having to pay her own way around the world – and her own enormous excess baggage fees – Bertini is now supported by charities that see the value in engaging artists to fight the spread of HIV and break down taboos around discussing sex.
Art is especially effective at engaging young people, who weren’t around to see the deadly scourge of AIDS in the 1980s and ’90s. While so much information about AIDS revolves around medical and technological treatments, the simplest and cheapest weapon to fight it – condom use – is being forgotten, according to Bertini.
“I make headdresses to put it in their minds,” says Bertini, wearing one made of light pink condoms stretched and twisted to look like feathers and pointing to her forehead to demonstrate her point.
This is also the idea behind Africa’s first Museum of AIDS. Set up as a “traveling museum,” it will be be taken to countries all over Africa to allow people to come and learn, and to think about AIDS and how it has had an impact on their community.
For Ngaire Blankenberg, one of the museum’s founders, AIDS is a “massive chapter” in the history of Africa.
“It has changed us as much as colonialism, especially in southern Africa, where it has changed every chapter of our lives and community.”
Even in Blankenberg’s native South Africa, where the epidemic has hit hardest and left 7 million people still infected today, frontline health workers “have never grieved” and people have seen loved ones reduced to “patients” or “victims.”
While the global conversation revolves around the race to find cures, Blankenberg wants to carve out some space for past endeavors and personal healing.
“Because we’re in perpetual crisis, we often don’t take the time to reflect or to learn or to remember … we need to have a repository of memory, not only of the lives lost, but also of the efforts tried.”
With a museum, “it’s memory and learning and resilience made tangible,” says Blankenberg.
As an events coordinator for South African educational theater group Drama for Life, Zanele Madiba has “witnessed how there’s power in the arts” to bridge that gap of parents and kids being open to speaking about sex and sexuality.
Based at Wits University in Johannesburg and supported by South African actress Charlize Theron and a UCLA arts program, the company visits schools to engage children in plays and poetry.
Drama for Life also performs “for people on the outskirts who wouldn’t usually access the arts” by visiting community, art or youth centers, including around conferences and festivals where art “needs more space,” says Madiba.
“There’s so much science happening at the AIDS conference. There’s so much ‘we want the evidence,’ but I really feel that there’s a methodology that arts can actually use that’s not so confrontational and that really helps people to open up.”
Madiba has heard people disclosing their HIV status during Drama for Life’s performances on the sidelines of the conference.
She is also regularly surprised or reduced to tears by the plays and poems that students pen and recite around AIDS and stigma, including one apology note from a man who leaves his partner after discovering she is positive.
“It touches me all the time and I’m always crying, and I’ve heard it like a thousand times,” she says with a laugh, as tears bubble under her eyes.