‘The Unsung S/heroes’ Takes African Grandmothers From the Shadows to the Spotlight
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‘The Unsung S/heroes’ Takes African Grandmothers From the Shadows to the Spotlight

Get an intimate look into the lives of the African grandmothers who are the (s)heroes at the heart of the response to Africa’s AIDS pandemic at the CONTACT Photography Festival.

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“Photography hasn’t had a good history in Africa,” said Alexis MacDonald at the opening of her current photo exhibit, The Unsung S/heroes. “The most important thing in this exhibit was to portray the grandmothers exactly the way they want their stories to be told. It wasn’t about me as a photographer.”

MacDonald offers an intimate look into the lives of the African grandmothers who are the heroes at the heart of the response to Africa’s AIDS pandemic. When their children pass away from the virus, these women–some of whom are HIV-positive themselves and well into their 70s and 80s–are left to care for their grandchildren, becoming the centrepiece of survival for their families.

Now through May 31 at Daniels Spectrum (585 Dundas Street East), the powerful exhibit is part of the Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival. It’s designed and curated by Moss & Lam and presented by the Stephen Lewis Foundation.

The strength, love, and empowerment of the grandmothers conveyed through the provoking photography is both moving and uplifting. “The exhibit allows you to go on the journey the grandmothers have gone on and shows how they are transforming their lives,” says MacDonald. “It’s in their own voice, and the accompanying quotes reveal both what they have accomplished and what they hope to happen.”

MacDonald wears two hats as both the director of external affairs for the Stephen Lewis Foundation, where she has worked for 13 years, and as a photographer for the foundation. Over her time with the organization, she has covered the ground in Sub-Saharan Africa in 14 countries.

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In February, MacDonald approached Moss & Lam in hopes of collaborating. “It was a very easy yes,” said Deborah Moss, co-founder of Moss & Lam. “When we saw the photos and heard about the parameters of the show, we thought, ‘Wow, this is something that’s really out of the sphere of what we do. This would be really, really refreshing.’ How can you say no to grandmothers in need and to working with the foundation, especially when you get to work with beautiful pieces of artwork as well?” While Moss was familiar with the cause, working so closely to it was an eye-opening experience. “The closer you get, you become more in awe of the scope of the problem and the work these people are doing,” she says.

The first to notice the pivotal role played by the grandmothers in their communities were the African community-based organizations that began implementing HIV/AIDS response programs at the onset of the crisis. They then adapted their programs to address the interconnected issues and challenges faced by grandmothers and their orphaned grandchildren, including psycho-social and peer counselling, food and housing security, healthcare, and income and child support.

Not only did this transform the everyday lives of grandmothers and their grandchildren when their basic needs were met, it inspired a powerful movement as grandmothers began to examine the bigger picture of the HIV/AIDS crisis, considering things such as economic and gender inequality. It didn’t take long before grandmothers began to unite in large gatherings, sit on land-rights and child-protection councils, and boldly march in the streets, offering a voice for grandmothers who were still without resources. At the centre of The Unsung S/heroes is a dialogue about how the grandmothers have moved from suffering and agony to mobilizing to claim their human rights.

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The photos and quotes featured are the result of a five-year conversation in eight countries with grassroots organizations and grandmothers. In total, MacDonald accumulated 100,000 photos and 77 of them are featured in the exhibit. On of the women featured is Mama Darlina Tyawana, a South African grandmother and AIDS activist with Treatment Against Campaign, who was in town for the opening of the exhibit. Beaming, she described what she’s most proud of, including the progress made in children’s rights, human rights, and—“the proudest, proudest of all”—the rollout of antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) in South Africa.

“I’m proud of the voices of the grandmothers who came out last year to march the grounds of the International AIDS Conference in Durban. Oh, it was empowering,” said Tyawana.“The grandmothers were telling the government exactly what they need and the challenges they are facing—gender issues, advocacy, the rights of pensions, and the right to stay with their grandchildren. They see themselves as teachers, councillors, leaders, and freedom fighters. But others are saying ‘We don’t have voices; we need people like you, mama, who can be our voice.’”

Of course, the exhibit marks a way to take these grandmothers further from the shadows. “Historically, as the men get older in these communities, they are seen as older statesmen, while the women are not seen at all and are virtually invisible,” said MacDonald. “Now, they’ve become spokeswomen; they’ve become proud and powerful leaders.”

You can get to know the stories of some of them yourself at The Unsung S/heroes.