Palestinian Archaeology And Positive Lives: New Exhibitions At The Brunei Gallery

By Siba Matti | 18 January 2007
photo shows man digging in field

Narcisse is HIV positive and the president of his local AIDS association called Girimpuhwe, meaning "have compassion". He works in his field with a neighbour. Stuart Freedman/Panos

The SOAS Brunei Gallery in London’s Russell Square begins its 2007 programme with two brand new exhibitions, Positive Lives: HIV and A Future for the Past: Petrie’s Palestinian Collection, both running until 24 March.

The first of the exhibitions is polemical. Positive Lives: HIV explores the hardships endured by HIV and AIDS sufferers from countries such as India, Bangladesh, Malawi, Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda, Thailand and Cambodia. The 23 vibrant photographs on display reveal the particular and personal in a still intractable epidemic. 15 million children have lost at least one parent; 40 million live with HIV.

As well as investigating the different issues and emotions individuals must face as they attempt to live and work with the disease, the exhibition also highlights positive human responses to the global crisis.

photo shows woman with baby at medical centre

Dorothy Mbazumutima, 27, with other members of the AIDS Association at Kansi Health centre. All the women are positive and for one or two days a week come to the centre to make baskets and other handicrafts which are sold for a small profit. Dorothy's child is too new to be named and the mother is unsure whether he has the virus. The association's name is 'Abatanyuranya' which loosely translates as 'Those that bond together'. Stuart Freedman/Panos

One image depicts three young women waiting outside the Kibayi Health Centre in Rwanda for an HIV test. 11 per cent of the population has HIV or AIDS, mainly as a result of the genocide and sexual violence in 1994, where more than one million people were massacred. Despite their unenviable predicament, these three women are considered lucky - they have access to support groups and their government is backing an initiative to provide counseling services.

How can photographs like these help, rather than risk becoming a sort of 'disaster tourism?' The Terrence Higgins Trust and Concern worldwide have funded these images as a campaign tool. Partly a restatement of the need for more money, they also illustrate the taboos - both at a social and government level - that help the disease. The truthfulness of the pictures is aimed to combat a climate of secrecy. It must have taken considerable guts for some of those pictured to allow themselves to be described as HIV positive.

photo shows man wincing as he has an hiv test with needle in arm

Assumpta Ntibazinkayo, aged 26 has her blood taken for testing. Afterwards she receives her results which are 'unproven' and she must go through the ordeal again. Stuart Freedman/Panos

HIV sufferers in Mozambique have less support than the Rwandan women, as an image of a man covering his face illustrates. Lack of awareness, limited resources and little state assistance has created a culture of silence where individuals live in fear, too afraid to ask for help in case their job, family or church will be affected.

There is also widespread stigma of HIV and AIDS in India, which has been represented by shots of the eyes of subjects who requested to remain anonymous, for fear of potential repercussions.

This is also so in Cambodia. One of the most heart-breaking photographs in the selection is of Phirun and his younger brother Phirak, who are now under the care of their cousin after their father, mother and brother all became victims of the disease.

photo shows man sitting in darkened tent with candle

Saidi Ruhimbana cares for his wife, Anastasie, in the Kibingo District. He is now the sole breadwinner, (as a farmer), and he also has AIDS. "Things have changed. These days we are getting poorer…. The first commitment we made to each other was that the stronger one should look after the other. The second was that our neighbours would not know that we weren't strong. The third was that we would tell our children to protect themselves and not to listen to bad things". Saidi is the President of the Kigembe HIV & AIDS Association. Stuart Freedman/Panos

In Uganda, although the government has recognised the consequences of the deadly virus, the problem has been tackled by promoting abstinence instead of safe sex, causing conflicting messages and an increased risk of disease transmission.

However, thanks to people like Susan Athura, who founded the City View High Club in the Ugandan capital of Kampala, many are slowly becoming educated about HIV and AIDS. Happily, Athura’s efforts to teach the dangers of unsafe sex have been resulted in fewer unplanned pregnancies in the local area.

photo shows man dancing

In the village of Kirarambogo, Rwanda traditional dancers and villagers dance to warn others of the dangers of HIV/AIDS. Stuart Freedman/Panos.

As Breda Gahan, Concern’s Global HIV & AIDS Programme Adviser, says

“ Too many people living with HIV and AIDS are still stigmatized because of fear of their condition. If we could improve dialogue between political leaders and people living with HIV and AIDS, amazing things could happen.”

photo shows gold torcs

Some of Petrie's finds from Palestine. Courtesy of the Institute of Archaeology (UCL)

The second of the two exhibitions currently being hosted by the gallery is A Future for the Past: Petrie’s Palestinian Collection.

An exploration of the archaeological findings in Gaza by Sir Flinders Petrie (1853 – 1942), the display contains previously unseen ancient artifacts dating as far back as 4500 BC.

A budding archaeologist from the mere age of eight, Petrie pursued his interest with extraordinary success, examining Stonehenge at 19 and later travelling to Egypt to investigate the construction of the Great Pyramid at Giza in 1880.

But he spent most of his time in Gaza, digging at sites that are now divided between the modern states of Israel and the Palestine authority, including Tell el-Hesi in 1890, Tell Jemmeh during 1926-27, Tell Fara (1927-30), and Tell el-’Ajjull from 1930-38.

Petrie’s excavations produced some remarkable discoveries; he unearthed amulets and jewellery, pottery and kitchen utensils, daggers and spearheads, fragments of oil lamps and bowls and even catfish bones from the Nile and an early pair of tweezers.

His findings date from as far back as the Copper and Bronze ages (4500 – 1550BC), to the Egyptian Empire and early Iron Age (1550-1000 BC), and to the Iron Age II and Mamluk periods (1000 BC – 1516 AD)

photo shows torcs

Courtesy of the Institute of Archaeology (UCL)

But more than just a wealth of ancient treasure, the exhibition also draws on notebooks, letters and photographs kept by Petrie and his colleagues, in order to reconstruct what life was like for the average archaeologist.

Visitors can get a taste of this through a whole host of interactive areas; you can see into a re-enactment of a 1930’s ‘dig house’, explore a trench, use a pickaxe, create your own mosaic, sit in a ‘Bedouin tent’ to watch a film about a dig, add your own scene to an excavation, and touch a piece of Basalt, a robust volcanic rock.

The exhibition also celebrates Palestine’s rich cultural history and diversity with a selection of ancient costumes, coins and bank notes, a history of the olive plant- a staple in the Palestinian diet - and a series of Canaanite, Philistine, Bethlem, Bedouin and Medieval headdresses to try on.

As Dr Rachel Sparks, UCL Lecturer and Keeper of Collections says:

“Ancient Palestine has much to offer the modern world. The past holds a fascination for people of all ages, cultures and faiths, and archaeology allows us to experience this rich heritage in a very immediate and personal way.”

The exhibition is about to receive an interesting counterpoint in Khalil Rabah's art installation - an 'anti-museum' of Palestinian history opening at the Brunei on January 25th. Watch this space as we find out how these two very different views of Palestine play off each other.

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:
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