‘Invisible Trauma’ presentation by artist Rachel Gadsden

On the evening of February 1st I was invited to listen to Rachel Gadsden speaking at GV Art – the hub for art and science collaboration in London – about her project Unlimited Global Alchemy

On the evening of February 1st I was invited to listen to Rachel Gadsden speaking at GV Art – the hub for art and science collaboration in London – about her project Unlimited Global Alchemy. It was part of the ‘Trauma’ Exhibition that is showing at the Gallery.

Rachel is a visual artist living in London whose art is her life and her life is in the art she produces. Having been granted a commission from the Unlimited International London 2012 Cultural Olympiad she has set out on this project which brings her together with the South African artist Nondumiso Hlewe. At the talk she explained how a seed had been sewn at an international drawing symposium at Cambridge. In the Anthropology and Archaeology museum she saw life size body maps – literally a trace of someone’s body, ‘the starting point to tell the story of your life.’ They had been painted by a group of women, dying from AIDS, from a township, Khayelitsha, in South Africa.

Rachel was ‘bowled over’ by a particular painting at the exhibition and was determined to find the artist. She bought a catalogue from Amazon in which she found artists names and blind emailed countless people in the hope of some connection. Eventually after 6 weeks Nondumiso contacted her. Fast forward to last Autumn when she flew out to meet and work with her and the Bambanani group, excited by the prospect of the collaboration. Together the group, which now includes both genders, collaborate to create dynamic artwork, film, live performance artwork and an online presence. The idea is to make their ‘invisible trauma’ visible.

Nondumiso was one of the first people of the township to get antiretroviral treatment for HIV/AIDS through the organisation Medicins Sans Frontieres. Now, through shared complicated medical regimes and their artwork the group are united together to show the global community the strength gained by creating and sharing their work.

Rachel spoke to an audience of around forty people. She highlighted the challenges an invisible trauma can present, having her own invisible disability. As well as being diagnosed with retinoschisis four years ago (a condition where the retinas split), she wears a machine that injects her every minute to keep her alive. She has spoken previously of how it has a huge affect on her psychological consciousness. ‘Whilst I don’t think about it all the time I have to think about it, because if I don’t fill this thing up I won’t survive more than a couple of hours.’ You would never know she lives with these problems.

The passion she has for her artwork and the people, (now friends), she has worked with in South Africa, was delivered in such a way that everyone in the room felt they too knew these people and had a better understanding of what Nondemiso and the group are going through.

The message that came through was that it doesn’t matter what is happening in your life, if you are strong you will survive. Their need for each other and their understanding of one another helped them through their ordeals. It is the same the world over. Rachel emphasised, ‘how life is precious, how important it is and to enjoy every moment.’ The Bambanani group certainly have done that in their time spent with Rachel. It was wonderful to see their photographs taken during the visit – such happy faces and so full of life despite the traumas that they are enduring. It is important for them to speak out through their art work about their invisible traumas and make them visible.

The fact that you would not know of their pain by seeing the photographs, backs up Rachel’s other directive that if you are busy in your life then you don’t have time to think about your health. As soon as you can be creative the better it is for everyone. This wasn’t the only message taken away that night, but I do believe it is a vitally important one that we should all adhere to.

The Trauma exhibition, which runs until February 18th 2012, includes Rachel’s piece Ubunto ‘I am what I am because of who we all are’, which she worked on in South Africa with the group. It hangs in the gallery on the top floor as you walk in. It is an acrylic, chalk and ribbon piece on purple velvet and narrates the traumatic journey that members of Bambanani have been on and shared together since they were infected with HIV/AIDS virus. The appeal of the piece for me was the life and hope that Rachel has captured in the faces of these artists, these fellow humans. It really is a stunning piece. I defy anyone not to be moved by it alone. 

The evening ended with a talk from Gill Lloyd, co-director of Arts Admin and many questions from the floor. I think it will be a talking point for a very long time. As it should be. As Rachel said, ‘what’s invisible should become visible.’ And what could be a better way to do that than through art? 

If you wish to find out more about Rachel Gadsden and the Unlimited Global Alchemy please visit.

Trauma Exhibition: 1st December 2011 – 18 February 2012

GV Art Gallery   

49 Chiltern Street, London, W1U 6LY

020 8408 9800