HIV/AIDS and Identity Recovery: STITCHing the Self Back Together
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In this thesis I explore and evaluate the grounds upon which we can claim that community and activist art makes a difference in peoples’ lives. To do so, I examine an ongoing art project that seeks to transform the lives of American women with HIV/AIDS through artistic creation, the STITCHES Doll Project. To evaluate the efficacy of the Project, I position the Project in relation to the history of HIV/AIDS in America, popular and medical understandings of the illness, connections between HIV/AIDS and oppressive structures, representations of the illness, as well as Western conceptions of embodiment, illness, and identity. Against this history, I provide visual and textual analyses of several of the works produced through the STITCHES Doll Project, in combination with interviews and reports from participants themselves, to determine how these dolls affect these women’s sense of self and agency. This thesis argues that Western understandings of the meaning of HIV/AIDS, combined with its physical, emotional, social, and psychological effects, violently erodes a sense of self for those who contract the illness. Specifically, I argue that because identity in the West is predicated upon self-control, self-containment, mental control, and a repression of embodiment, illness, and death, HIV/AIDS has been experienced at both a personal and cultural level as corrosive of identity. In response to such pain, the STITCHES Doll Project provides an opportunity for HIV+ women to use a variety of strategies to re-establish their identity. Strategies such as sharing the illness or displacing it, when enacted through the Project, can successfully assist in re-affirming identity for participants. I suggest that this is where the value of the Project is best situated, and that this case study provides reason to believe in the value and power of community and activist art. Nevertheless, the Project’s success at individual, social, political, and pedagogical levels is tempered by the challenges posed by cultural codes, discourses, institutions, and practices. In light of this, my research explores how negotiation of these cultural codes, norms and practices helps to both re-build, as well as un-do, identity for participants.