Wits Art Museum showcases the artistic work of a photographer who sought to destigmatise HIV/AIDS through documenting awareness initiatives.

As part of its year-long focus on women artists and its 10th birthday, the university’s art museum is exhibiting the work of a social activist, whose work focused on liberation politics and HIV awareness.

The exhibition titled Her Eye on the Storm, showcases the work of the late photographer, Gisèle Wulfsohn who died in 2011 due to lung cancer.

The exhibition displays portraits of 31 South Africans who had publicly disclosed their HIV status in 1999 and 2000, during a time when the country was battling with the epidemic. Through this, Wulfsohn sought to destigmatise HIV by documenting awareness initiatives about the disease.

As part of the demonstration, there is a series titled, Malibongwe: Let Us Praise the Women, which features portraits of renowned women leaders such as Winnie Mandela, Albertina Sisulu and Ellen Kuzwayo. Wulfsohn documented the presence and contribution of these women in South Africa’s history and liberation struggle.

The curator of the exhibition, Beather Mgoza Baker, said that she chose to show Wulfsohn’s portraits because the work of women photographers and photojournalists in capturing South Africa’s past, political liberation and its social evolution has often been missing or underrepresented culturally in the media.

Baker said that she wanted to, “capture humanity in all of its guises” by utilising Wulfsohn’s work. According to Baker, “[Wulfsohn] consciously chose to focus on the areas that would make life better for people.”  

Wulfsohn, who specialised in portraiture started focusing on HIV/AIDS because of her cousin who battled with the virus, explained Wulfsohn’s husband, Mark Turpin.

Turpin said, “We (himself and his wife) knew that there was an issue with HIV/AIDS… What Gisèle managed to do was to put a face onto these issues and make them real for people. When people come out with their HIV status, [viewers of the photography] can see [that those infected with the disease] look like everybody else.”  

He said that Wulfsohn had the ability to take good portraits of people because she was able to connect with them and put them at ease despite how intimidating up-close camera shots can be.

A second-year BA law student at Wits, Ssiima Sematimba said, “There really is such an importance to photographers and the act of photography and capturing moments of life. Even though we (viewers) were not experiencing it there at that moment, we can still feel a piece of that life just [by] viewing it.”

Turpin encouraged photographers to engage in artistic work and take intimate photographs that will tell a story. The exhibition will be on show until October 2022.

FEATURED IMAGE: Guest of the Her Eye on the Storm exhibition looking at Gisèle Wulfsohn’s family portraits. Photo: Busisiwe Mdluli.