Telling Stories

Rachel Chapple Recruits Artists, Writers—Everyone—for a Conversation About AIDS
by Chael Needle

My Blood Is Red Ochre But My Heart Is Made From Stars, Bruce Rimell, 2010, is paired with poetry by Timothée Barrus.

Imagination is the path to empathy. That’s the core of a recently launched on-line HIV awareness and prevention campaign called Real Stories Gallery. The not-for-profit Web site brings together visuals and storytelling into an ongoing and ever-changing conversation, one that interlinks diverse geographic regions, topics, and media. The aim, in part, is to pull visitors out of their spectator role and into a participatory one. Toward this end, the conversation—like any good one—needs to be relatable, clear, and take unexpected turns. And it simply cannot have one speaker.

Rachel Chapple, who started Real Stories, has long had an interest in conversation as an act of communication. Her PhD work in social anthropology at SOAS in London drew on her art and museum-design background, focusing on the conversations that artists have while they go about their work process.

First, she worked with contemporary African artists at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and Gasworks Artists Studio, as part of Africa 95, U.K. “Then, as part of my follow-up research, I went to Botswana and lived in some of the villages, speaking to the artists to see what effect their traveling to England and the exchange of ideas had on their work. Also, it gave me an opportunity to understand where they lived and the challenges they experienced having their voices heard. That’s when I was introduced to the idea of HIV and AIDS within family homes,” Chapple explains. Up until then, she had had friends who were affected, but they were gay or theater arts professionals or artists, part of a familar Western context for AIDS in the nineties. In Botswana, HIV was affecting straight-identified individuals and their families to a greater extent than in the U.K. “I realized this is something that could potentially affect everybody,” she says.

About a year ago, Chapple received phone calls informing her that many of the friends she had met fifteen years ago during her research stint had died or were dying. Lack of access to medication was a prime culprit. Sadness moved her to action. “I thought, ‘What can I do? I don’t know very much about HIV and AIDS. I’m a mother of four children living in New York.’” But then, like planks of a wooden bridge being laid down, Chapple took inventory of what she did have—a computer, access to the Internet and its burgeoning social-networking sites, the ability to write a persuasive letter—and it all fell into place.

Mercado de Matola, Berry Bickle, 2008, is paired with writings from Zandra Bezuidenhout, Junior Mayema, Carolyn Srgyley-Moore, Aad de Gids, and Kareemah El-Amin.

She wrote hundreds and hundreds of those letters, seeking out artists because she knew that, together, they made up a heterogenous community: They are “men, women, old, young, every social status, everywhere in the world, and, more than that, they are actually embedded in distinct localities around the world. And there exists a strong network between artists…,” she notes. She also understood that artists were usually empathetic. “They care deeply about the world and people around them and they respond to it. And so I thought, ‘Let me ask them if they could help tell the stories of the people around them and then, once we’ve shared information and it’s traveled around the community, people could share their ideas and offer support systems to each other.’ That was the basic idea.”

Eventually, thanks to networks on the ground and in cyberspace, artists, writers, musicians, and filmmakers responded, and now those interested in participating have begun seeking Real Stories out. “It’s one of those projects where the more work and the more collaboration on the site, more people come and join in,” Chapple says, though she notes sometimes the interactivity requires a slow build.

Says Chapple: “It’s sort of evolved organically into a collaborative project, which I’m quite pleased about because it speeds up the idea process. A poet in Italy might be collaborating with an artist in South Africa as a response to an image and a story that he’s seen on Real Stories. The project seems to change daily and weekly. And the point of the project is to raise awareness, to say that HIV/AIDS is there, and it affects ordinary people, like me. It affects my life.”

In partnership with South Africa’s Art For Humanity, Real Stories supports the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation’s Mobile Tutu Tester Community Clinics but it also has created a fund of creativity first and foremost through this platform for collaboration. A short film will be paired with a poem, for example. Or a painting will be bundled with an essay. Some of the collaborations are premeditated, and shepherded in by artist-advocates like Jan Jordaan, director of Art for Humanity; some are the result of Chapple seeing the connections among topics or themes and “cross-fertilizing” them accordingly. The result is accretive but also, and more significantly, synergistic. Real Stories effectively reorganizes communities into something like a teleidoscope—a type of kaleidoscope whose shifting bits are not colored crystals but mirrors that reflect the real world.

Mother’s Grief (from Women for Children Portfolio), Kim Berman, 2005, is paired with a poem by Mmatshilo Motsei.

Collaboration also helps to break down genre and participant/viewer boundaries because, as Chapple explains, “it’s difficult to look at just one image” when a visitor logs on to the site. Topics ranging from side effects of antiretrovirals to homeless youth with HIV bump up against a mix of styles and media. Perspectives are both challenged and embraced. The free-form site allows anyone and everyone to identify with something. This capacity is why Chapple avoids targeting a “high-risk” audience. “It prevents so much HIV prevention—all that boxing and categorizing.”

Relating with each other across social and geographic boundaries is the basis of the pandemic, anyway, says Chapple. “The umbrella is HIV and AIDS—it covers a huge spectrum of humanity and the lives we live. Because at the end of the day the majority of AIDS comes from sexual relations between people and they take many forms…,” she notes.

Even as the site has attracted well respected artists like Berry Bickle (Zimbabwe/Mozambique), David Koloane (South Africa), Tim Barrus (U.S.A.), and Kim Berman (South Africa), and poets like Kareemah El-Amin (U.S.A.), Carolyn Srygley-Moore (U.S.A.), Paul A. Toth (U.S.A.), and Elazar Larry Freifeld (Israel), the participants are not given “expert” status. In fact, the mission of Real Stories is the exact opposite of assembling a small cadre of individuals who have been authorized to speak about HIV and AIDS.

Explains Chapple: “I’ve found that if I speak to very ordinary mothers I’ve met in New York at the school gates and explain the project their response may well be, ‘Gosh it’s a good idea but I don’t know anyone with AIDS and I don’t know what to say but I’d love to help.’ So I will say, ‘Have a look at the Web site and read the stories and just send me something about how you feel,’ and that’s what they’re beginning to do.” It’s crucial that everyone become involved in this kind of interaction so that Real Stories “will be the eyes and ears of neighborhoods around the world.”

Along with collaboration, clarity is key. From the start, Chapple asked artists to submit a narrative with their work. This prerequisite met with some resistance from some artists, mostly from the West, who either wanted to maintain a sense of individual ownership of their work or did not prefer “easy” interpretations. “Sometimes I say to them, ‘Sometimes it’s really important to say something as clearly as you can,’” responds Chapple. “With this sort of project, it is important to say, ‘Yes, I think it’s wrong that millions of people are suffering and dying an agonizing death.’” Now, if a work comes in without a narrative, as an orphan, it does not reside in an isolated portfolio but soon finds a companion, a family, a community.

Chapple realizes that the site is taking on a life of its own. The future of Real Stories depends on new participants, who will help the site evolve into something different than it was yesterday. In March, the site will settle into a permanent archive but that does not mean the interactivity will stop.

Says Chapple: “People who have been holding back and perhaps watching and thinking, ‘I wonder what this is about?’, may suddenly see an artist they like or a poet they like or a writer that they like and then join in.”

Log on to to view Real Stories Gallery. For more information about Art for Humanity, visit For more information about the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation, visit

Chael Needle is Managing Editor of A&U.

February 2011