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From Pretty Outfits to AIDS Activism

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Andrea Reynders’ Sabbatical Takes an Unexpected Turn

“I arrived with books, magazines, and sewing tools, some fabric, and many ideas and pre-conceptions. The crafters were thirsty for knowledge and day after day we would work from early morning to late afternoon—or until the water stopped running or the electricity shut off.”

This phrase from the poster included in fashion design professor Andrea Reynders’ sabbatical exhibition at the Betty Rymer Gallery, which closed November 3, exemplifies the disparity that was evident in every step of her project. Reynders spent a year in rural South Africa, working with a volunteer organization that provided assistance for the disease and poverty-ravaged community, where modern medical clinics sat alongside rustic tribal shamans. There were resources for health and education, but no electricity to keep them open. There were hundreds of eager volunteers, but no money or proper equipment. And many of the grinning, jovial, pragmatic South Africans whom she came to know and respect were dying. Andrea Reynder

Reynders’ fourth sabbatical, didn’t begin as a crusade. In the past, her sabbatical exhibitions were small collections of garments, just like in the fashion industry, inspired by handwritten poetry or Japanese samurai. This time, her year long break coincided with the last year of her husband Hennie’s contract at the University of Pretoria in South Africa (he’s a native and a faculty member in the department of Architecture, Interior Architecture, and Designed Objects), so she went to join him, ostensensibly to concentrate on her current clothing collection. But it didn’t work out like that.

“At the time I left,” she explains, “I was thinking about clothes. Clothes are my life, they always were. While I was there, I decided that because I didn’t have any teaching responsibilities, I was just working on my own stuff, and I decided I would love to do some volunteer work with one of the AIDS organizations.”

Through friends, Reynders met Sallie McKibbin, director of a non-profit humanitarian organization called Thembalethu Home Based Care (thembalethu.org). McKibbin helped her get involved with the Youth in Action division, which trains college-aged people to promote HIV and AIDS awareness.

There, she found a group of students as enthusiastic as they were ill-equipped. The Arts and Crafts team at Thembalethu consisted of about eight or nine young people, who were making simple pillows and tablecloths on old-fashioned hand-cranked sewing machines. “I gave them, I suppose, Fashion 101,” says Reynders. She taught them the basics of draping, drafting, cutting, and sewing actual clothes.

McKibbin told Fnewsmagazine that the center rarely attracts artists, and that Reynders was remarkable for how she “demonstrated commitment, hard work, focus, creativ[ity], [and] inspired the youth to attain perfection.”

“I think they were all savvy about fashion,” Reynders recalls. “They were very into the glamour look. A lot of them loved the most formal, most outrageously decorative, and all the fanfare stuff, more than just the regular kind of jeans and a T-shirt. So that’s what they wanted to make.” Unfortunately, the market for couture—or even the simple cotton skirts and tops they sewed for the gift shop—is extremely limited, and the venture was short-lived.

When Reynders returned to Thembalethu a few months later, a Dutch sponsor had donated nine brand-new industrial sewing machines and a merrow machine, a device used to professionally finish the raw edges of fabric on the inside of garments. Additionally, a man had been found three villages over who owned a small company that produced overalls and work clothing, and was receiving substantial local commissions. He agreed to head a month-long workshop at Thembalethu to teach the crafters how to produce clothing.

They organized an important and large-scale project. The students would help create service uniforms, consisting of a long black skirt or black pants, white shirt, and vest, for the 300 Home Based Care volunteers who serve approximately 250,000 “vulnerable people” in the area—those who can’t leave their homes for medical attention due to illness, injury, old age, those who can’t afford food or funerals for their families, and those who need spiritual or emotional counseling.

“It was quite a huge ordeal,” says Reynders. “What’s happened in that area is that so many people are infected with AIDS and so many people are poor, they can’t even take care of their own people. The saddest thing is that though they are beginning to get anti-retroviral medicine, it’s not reaching rural areas.” She cites examples like South African Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang publicly stating that people didn’t have to take AIDS drugs if they didn’t want to—they should instead concentrate on a diet of beetroot and garlic as a preventative. Anti retro-viral drugs often make people infected with AIDS sicker before they make them better, and rural villagers would much rather have their local shaman prescribe a bowl of vegetables than get stuck with needles by total strangers.

“Awareness, awareness, awareness,” adds McKibbin, “Will eventually change the way we think, react, and accept the disease, and encourage us to fight the scourge.”

Andrea Reynder“There are horrific stories about, still, men believing that they can be cleansed of HIV by raping a virgin or infants, very tiny children, and while I was there, some horrible things happened,” admits Reynders. “Always, one is only six feet away from something that happened. It wakes you up and it shocks your world, and you really feel helpless… because you’re coming from a country like this that is really so informed and so advantaged. I know that we don’t have all the solutions here either, but we’re miles above a place like that. Yet we go there, and there’s so little we can do. You do all you can, but it’s such a little tiny bit.”

This is why she decided not make clothes for her sabbatical exhibition. In the face of such a prevalent crisis, it seems flippant to make pretty dresses when little kids are orphaned by disease every day. Clothing just “didn’t feel like anything I wanted to present at the Rymer Gallery. After I had this experience, I didn’t feel like that was enough. It wasn’t enough to do garments. I felt that my experience going to Thembalethu had really been a point of change in my life; to make me aware of a whole different area of people, of creativity, of good will. I wanted to bring part of that experience to Chicago. That’s why I really thought very deeply about what kind of presentation I was going to do.”

While she was in South Africa, Reynders “had been taking a lot of photographs of the faces of people. I ended up with hundreds of photographs of faces. When I started to look at all my photographs, it just made sense to me … to bring back the reality that in a lot of rural areas in South Africa, there is so much disease and poverty out there, where a lot of people are trying to help. Nonetheless, the amount of people infected with AIDS is huge. We’re constantly reading articles and listening to Bono about how much all these contributions are coming together and they’re helping Africans for food and for medical aid and all of that stuff, and it’s all very noble. But it’s one thing, I thought, to read numbers, and another thing to look at the faces of these people.”

Reynders created one hundred cushions, just like the ones the students at Thembalethu were making when she got there. It was the first thing you saw when you walked into the Betty Rymer gallery: arranged on the ground in a big square, the handmade cushions were between 12 inches and eight inches square and each bore the face of a South African she met that year. Some are little kids, some are elderly people, some look young and healthy. Out of the one hundred, only 30 are printed in full color and are raised a few inches off the ground. These represent the mere 30% of the South African population that is not infected with HIV or AIDS. The other 70 cushions below them have been digitally sepia-toned, as though they are already fading.

“Andrea made it personal,” says Bambi Breakstone, professor in the fashion design department. “She introduced us to her friends in Africa with AIDS: young and old, laughing and in despair. And then she gave the viewer the opportunity to participate with her in actively doing something positive about AIDS.”

“My idea was that people would want to pick them up and hold them, hug them,” explains Reynders. “Some of the people who came to the exhibition would do that, which I really encouraged, to pick them up, to look at them eye-to-eye.”

The cushions are priced at $100 each, which seems steep. But think of it this way: if every cushion sells, Reynders will have raised $10,000, which is precisely the amount of money she estimates would be needed to initiate phase two of her crusade: to bring one or two students from Thembalethu to Chicago to participate in SAIC’s Early College Program. The administration has already agreed to waive tuition and dormitory fees, so she would only need to provide transportation and living expenses. In any case, one hundred percent of the proceeds—every last penny the cushions make—is going back to the South African community they represent.

“If not artists, then who is in a position to make socially conscientious statements?” asks Breakstone. “If an artist can create a socially conscientious work that makes the viewer feel connected to the experience of other people’s suffering and spurs the viewer into positive action, then the artist has profoundly effected the viewer’s humanity.”

“[The pillows] are a testament to her artistry, work ethic, and social conscience,” adds Pat Schildknecht, a friend of Reynders’. “I decided to buy the pillows because I wanted to support Andrea. I think that $100 barely covers her actual work: photography, fabric selection and purchase, printing, sewing and final presentation. The fact that she chooses to donate the proceeds probably encouraged me to buy two.”

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