• August 28, 2008

{mosimage}LONDON, Ont. - When Ontario high school kids get an art lesson from internationally collected, veteran professional artist Hendrikus Bervoets they don’t learn about form, colour, composition and balance.

“We deal with all kinds of social justice issues,” Boervoets told The Catholic Register as he was setting up a new gallery for student work in downtown London, Ont.

Bervoets uses the art lesson to teach kids about AIDS in Africa. He gives the same workshops to 13- to 19-year-old high school students in sub-Saharan Africa and in Europe. Under the umbrella of his charitable Art for AIDS International foundation, Bervoets is making a connection between middle class students in the comfortable West and African students who know poverty, exclusion and death as part of their everyday landscape.

After Bervoets’ lessons in creativity and social justice, students select images from magazines and create their own sketches and finger paintings. They assemble all these images into collages.

Bervoets collects the best of the student collages into portfolios and prints them in limited editions. The portfolios are sold at art shows and fairs for $25 per print. The money goes to a variety of AIDS charities active in Africa, including the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund, Stephen Lewis Foundation and Nkosi’s Haven orphanage and village for HIV-positive children in South Africa.

{mosimage}Art work by African and Ontario students are displayed side-by-side and Ontario schools are twinned with African schools. Close to 100 Canadian schools have been twinned with African counterparts through the art workshops.

Boeverts has been at this since 2001 when he and artist Rudolf Bikkers and South African High Commissioner to Canada Andre Jacquet founded Art for AIDS International. The charitable foundation is now attracting corporate sponsorships to fund scholarships for African students who have the academic ability but can’t afford to go to university.

While the money raised is not a bad thing, the most important thing Art for AIDS achieves is a connection of hearts and minds between students separated by far more than just continents, said Bervoets.

“You create awareness,” he declared.

{mosimage}London Free Press photojournalist Dave Chidley has travelled with Bervoets to South Africa and contributed his photos of children orphaned by AIDS and living with HIV to Art for AIDS. As the award-winning lensman sees it, the most important thing Bervoets does is stop students from being passive observers of a health disaster which claimed two million lives in 2007 alone, 270,000 of them children under 15, according to UNAIDS.

“What Hendrikus does is, I think, very original. He’s bringing this perspective to high school students that gives them an education about the pandemic, gives them a spattering of creativity. But the most unique part of it is that it actually empowers the kids,” Chidley said.

Money raised by sales of student art works makes life better for other students just like them.

“They actually see that in their lives they can actually make a difference,” said Chidley. “It’s rare that high school kids are given credit, or the responsibility, to do anything important.”

“We were quite quick to see the educational relevance of Art for AIDS,” said Chris Karuhanga, Ontario English Catholic Teachers’ Association vice president.

The teachers’ union has backed Art for AIDS and encouraged teachers to bring Boeverts into their classrooms because they see a link between the Art for AIDS mission and the Catholic faith which guides their schools.

{mosimage}“It’s one of those scourges that is pretty much threatening the sanctity of life, which is something as Catholics pretty much we hold very dear,” Karuhanga said.

A Catholic education should never leave students passive or cocooned from the realities of their world, according to Karuhanga.

“Leaving them to an environment which masks such realities I think would be doing them a disservice.”

Awareness of what AIDS has done to Africa and the world is basic to a Catholic education, said Canadian Jesuit Father Michael Czerny, who runs the African Jesuit AIDS Network based in Nairobi, Kenya.

“We are one human family,” said Czerny in an e-mail to The Catholic Register. “Indeed, St. Paul teaches: One body. If a part has AIDS, the whole body suffers.”

Czerny sees no reason why art can’t be part of the human response to AIDS.

“(AIDS) is medical, but not only. It is poverty, but not only. It is relationships and sexuality. It is body and spirit. It is community and society and state, but also personal, confidential and related to God,” said Czerny.

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