The Unsung S/heroes

African Grandmothers at the heart of the response to the AIDS pandemic

CONTACT Feature Photography Exhibit
May 2 - June 7, 2017
Daniels Spectrum
(585 Dundas St E, Toronto)

This exhibit featured intimate portraits of African grandmothers – the Unsung S/heroes at the heart of the response to the AIDS pandemic. It is a feature photography exhibit within the Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival, the largest photography event in the world, with over 1,500 artists in 200 exhibitions across Toronto throughout the month of May.

Presented by:           The Daniels Corporation
Exhibit Design by:   Moss & Lam
Photography by:      Alexis MacDonald/Stephen Lewis Foundation
Hosted by:                Artscape - Daniels Spectrum's Hallway Galleries

Follow on Twitter @stephenlewisfdn #unsungsheroes

The Story of the Unsung S/heroes >>
The Process Behind this Photo Exhibit >>

Opening Night

The Unsung S/heroes exhibit opened on May 2 at Daniels Spectrum. Hosted by spoken-word artist extraordinaire Britta B, the evening included performances by prolific and renowned artists Britta B, Sashoya Simpson, and Jackie Richardson. The evening also included a discussion on the representation of African grandmothers and the power, role and responsibility of photography. Invited guests were Mama Darlina Tyawan (South African grandmother & AIDS activist with Treatment Action Campaign), Hope Chigudu (feminist activist consultant with HopeAfrica and Co-Founder of the Zimbabwe Women’s Resource Centre and Network), and Kenneth Mugayehwenkyi (Founder and Executive Director of a leading national grandmothers’ organization in Uganda, Reach One Touch One.)

The Story of the Unsung S/heroes 

At the turn of the 21st century, AIDS was a wildfire roaring unchecked across numerous countries in sub-Saharan Africa leaving devastated, smoldering communities in its wake. The vast majority of lives claimed by this virus were adults in their prime – resulting in the double-blow of millions of children suddenly orphaned. At the very heart of this crisis, older women were responding with urgency - nursing and burying their adult children and taking in their grief-stricken grandchildren to begin parenting anew. The magnitude of the crisis coupled with the stigma surrounding AIDS meant in household after household the grandmothers were tackling these hardships, often in isolation.

African community-based organizations began implementing HIV&AIDS response programmes, and were the first to notice the pivotal role of the grandmothers in their communities. They quickly adapted their programmes to address the full range of interconnected issues and challenges facing the grandmothers and their grandchildren – including psycho-social and peer counselling, food and housing security, health care, income and education support.

In response to this support, a remarkable transformation began to take place. Once the grandmothers had a modicum of resources that allowed them to create some basic, immediate security for their families, they started to grapple with the larger economic and social challenges that were breeding grounds for HIV&AIDS - such as economic and gender inequality. Soon, grandmothers began to mobilize around their human rights, hold large gatherings of grandmothers, sitting on land rights and child protection councils and marching in the streets - supported by their community-based organizations, and reaching out to grandmothers who were still without resources.


The Process Behind this Photo Exhibit

For 13 years, the Stephen Lewis Foundation has been partnering with African community-based organizations running programmes by and for African grandmothers in countries hardest hit by AIDS. The Foundation has worked with the conviction that grassroots organizations are the leaders in the response to the pandemic, and the experts on what needs to happen at all levels (community, country and internationally) to turn the tide of AIDS. 


The photos and quotes in this exhibit are a result of a five-year conversation with grassroots organizations and the grandmothers appearing in this exhibit – a conversation about how the African grandmothers have moved from agony to mobilizing to claim their human rights. How, out of the despair of AIDS, a powerful social movement has emerged led by older women. It was a conversation that included how community organizations and grandmothers want their stories to be told and what kind of representation best reflects the dignity and resilience of the grandmothers themselves. The conversation continued throughout the selection and approval of photos and quotes, as communities discussed the complexity of ensuring they owned their story and how it was told, and the representation of grandmothers – particularly as it extends to audiences outside of their own context. Careful consideration was given to the children appearing in this exhibit who are grandchildren of the women involved in this initiative. Permission to use these photos has been granted but the children’s names have been withheld at the request of their grandmothers.


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