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Art as personal struggle

Comm 328: Human Rights in South Africa (2008)
Kristin Pitts

Soweto, South Africa
On the nights when Flora More is not feeling sad, she falls asleep with glue on her fingers, waiting for inspiration to hit.

When it does, More goes to her workspace, a six-by-four-foot corner of her parents' dimly-lit home. There she pushes aside small medicine bottles and tears into her limited stock of unconventional supplies, mostly scavenged from her neighbors' garbage, and, occasionally, if the shade of blue is just right, into a magazine, which she buys for a few rand.

The result invariably showcases More's now well-known trademarks: bright colors and South African women. But as her collages make their way off her thin partitions and onto the walls of posh hotels, homes and art galleries, the only thing that keeps up with the popularity of her women-focused work is the criticism of it.

The backlash, she says, stems from a powerful legacy of sexism and a deeply entrenched resistance to letting it go. Despite the fact that South Africa's new constitution protects women's rights and promotes equal opportunities, women find themselves in a constant battle for employment—and for respect.

More is one of them, but she refuses to be intimidated.

"Women here are being discriminated against by men," More says. "They think we only belong in the home, but we are trying to prove them wrong. Nothing is impossible, as long as you have a mind and the hands to do it."

In this post-apartheid society, where not long ago inequality was not just socially but legally enforced, More is looking for the balance in her own life and work that oppressed South Africans fought so long for in the political sphere.

"Men say all the time, ‘Why are you only drawing women?' More says. And, she adds, they are often put off by her "loathing."

The anger that infuses much of her work stems from her experience as a woman living in Soweto, South Africa's largest black township—an experience she insists is typical.

A high school dropout, More married young to a man who abused her. When he died a few years later, she says, her community turned on her, accusing her of involvement in his death.

But it would not be long before her community would reject her a second time.

A few years ago, More discovered that she, like tens of thousands of South African women, was HIV positive. After disclosing her status to her employer, she says she fell victim to both her disease and the ignorance surrounding it.

"Due to discriminations that I faced after I disclosed my status, I was sent away by my employer," More says. "Apparently they thought I was going to infect them."

In a country where as much misinformation on HIV is being spread as fact, stories like More's are all too common. South African Health Minister Tshabalala- Msimang's assertion that a diet of beetroot and garlic is vital in treating HIV, coupled with former Deputy President Jacob Zuma's claim that a shower after having sex could prevent HIV from being transmitted, are two recent examples of how the public has been misled at the highest levels on the nature of the disease and how to combat it.

But More considers herself lucky.

"I was fortunate to get a big project doing mosaic work, which sustained me for about a year, " she says. After her project was completed, More entered the workforce with a positive attitude, and with support from the few people who were willing to give it: her professors and classmates at Funda Community College.

"When I first started school, there was no one supporting me. But I stayed here, I persisted," More says looking around the room at other women artists, their work on display on the walls behind them. "I invited my friends and family to my first art exhibition, and that got me a little respect, and a little more when they did a story about me in the paper, but still people were asking ‘Why are you doing this?'

"Finally I brought my work back home and hung it on the walls. That's when people fell in love with it."

More's work offers hope in a place where it is often hard to come by, where basic needs like housing, water and electricity are unaffordable commodities for many and where ostentatious wealth is just a taxi ride away.

For More and the five family members who lean on her for financial support, money for the basics is, for now, in place. But just how long that money will be there is the question that has been keeping More up late, blocking the anything-but-sad mood she says she relies on to work.

As an independent artist, More knows her next paycheck is not guaranteed. As an HIV-positive artist, that uncertainty is even more real.

Currently, More's CD4 count, which indicates the strength of her immune system, is under 200. Healthy, HIV-negative adults generally have a CD4 count of 500-1,500 cells per cubic millimeter of blood. Preventative treatment and government funding starts when a patient's CD4 count is under 200.

Once an HIV positive patient's CD4 count rises above 200, the patient is deemed well enough to go off government aid—a cut off that terrifies More as she reviews her already-tight budget.

That aid, along with the money she earns from her collages, goes to feed, clothe and house her son, a niece, a sister who works part time, and her parents, who receive a small pension. By the time her expenses are paid, she doesn't have much left over. But she has seen how bad it can get, she says, and considers herself fortunate.

A few months from now, More will take a CD4 test to determine whether or not she will continue receiving aide. She says she now finds herself in an internal tugof- war: hoping for better health, but also hoping for a budget that supports her family.

More says she worries that getting better will mean that she will not be able to afford "luxury" items like electricity, or her son's education.

But she is not alone. With unemployment rates skyrocketing, "getting better" has become a relative term.

"I worry a lot," More says, "but after HIV, you have to be strong." More stares into the distance for a while, then snaps back into the moment. Her worries have been getting to her—affecting her work. Sometimes she says she will find herself up at all hours of the night, adding or taking away from her latest collage, ignoring her commitment to only work when she is happy.

"Sometimes I work without thinking, and I have to stop, but it's hard. When you start tearing and creating it all feels right," More says. It is difficult to stop her glue—covered fingers when for so long collages have acted as a kind of therapy for her. "You know what helps? This," she says, pointing out a collage of four women—her closest friends, who got her through her husband's death, her education and now HIV. "This helps. This and my son." More leans back in her folding chair. She says she is tired but does not look it. Her eyes are wide and her skin is radiant. She seems to have found herself, in her successes and her struggles.

"This has changed me in so many ways. My thinking is more matured, and the way people think of me is different," More says, smiling. "They see a person now instead of just a lady."