Tucked behind a florist shop in Altadena, artists working in a one-room office have for more than a decade been reenergizing, educating and inspiring a small township just east of Cape Town, South Africa. And now, with the world’s most popular event — the FIFA World Cup — being held this month in South Africa, the nonprofit Arts Aids Art is poised to raise awareness like never before about that country from here in Altadena and Pasadena, which hosted the 1994 World Cup and hopes to hold another in 2018 or 2022.
Since 1999, Art Aids Art, co-founded by Altadenans and former Pacific Oaks College teachers Tom Harding and Dorothy Yumi Garcia, has transformed the township of Khayelitsha, populated by thousands of rural migrants struggling to overcome poverty, substandard housing, high unemployment, relentless crime and ever-increasing rates of HIV infection, to say nothing of a drastic lack of schools and social services.
After visiting South Africa in 1999, hearing countless heartbreaking stories and seeing families barely surviving, Garcia and Harding organized literacy workshops in Khayelitsha, drawing on their backgrounds at Pacific Oaks. They began collecting what teachers and parents said they needed the most: multicultural children’s books and black dolls.
“The problems in South Africa are overwhelming,” said the 42-year-old Harding. “We decided to work in one community and do as much as we can and create as much opportunity as we can in that community.”
“I do have a political ideology when I work with these women,” said Garcia, “and that is for them to have the same choices I do. I don’t have to have children if I don’t want to, and neither should they. In a country that has these complexities, you can’t look into the eyes of these women and say, ‘You can’t use condoms.’”
Garcia and Harding say they don’t have a romantic view of the work they do; they simply try to meet the needs of what people say they want.
In 2003, a retired school teacher in El Paso, Texas, decided to support their work with a donation from her retirement fund, which led to the formal foundation of Art Aids Art. In 2006, Art Aids Art purchased a property from a Khayelitsha artist using donations from Garcia’s friends and family.
Altadena architect R. Steven Lewis led the design of Art Aids Art’s multipurpose community center on their new property, strategically located in a residential area lacking social services and economic opportunities. Called eKhaya eKasi, or “Home in the ’Hood,” it opened on World AIDS Day in December 2008 and, according to Harding, serves as an oasis for families impacted by poverty and HIV/AIDS. People there were looking for skills and leadership. Garcia, who taught for more than 10 years at Pacific Oaks, and Harding, who taught early childhood development and conducted teacher training courses at the school from 1995 to 2000, learned very quickly that a little goes a long way. Harding said the situation illustrates the positive side of the adage, “Give them an inch and they’ll take a yard.”
“If you give them an inch of your energy and your knowledge, they’ll run with it for miles,” Harding said. “It’s just incredible to see so many who have so little and who could complain so much be so creative and work so hard.”
The center is a home for education programs of all kinds. It generates local income by combining an art boutique, café, and bed and breakfast to draw tourists into the community, which was generally avoided because of blight and crime. The café is named after the late Pasadena community activist and former Art Aids Art Board Member Judith Zitter, who died in 2008 at the age of 53. The ultimate goal for the center is to achieve sustainability and have it be locally run.
A new skills training program designed to develop independence and AIDS awareness for women, dubbed Women Averting AIDS, was launched at the center last month. Former Pasadenan Tina Carrari applied for a grant from the Federation of American Women’s Clubs Overseas to fund the program. Formerly unemployed women who participate in the program get the opportunity to have their products sold at eKhaya eKasi’s art boutique.
Their art will also be sold at home parties in Greater Pasadena, a technique that has served as the financial and moral lifeblood of Art Aids Art.
“In 2003, Art Aids Art began to transport artwork to America to give South African artists international exposure,” said Harding. “To keep overhead low, the first event was held at the Altadena home of Board Member Beverly Heath [wife of legendary jazz musician Albert “Tootie” Heath]. The response was tremendous and the entire stock sold in an hour. Several attendees offered to host their own house parties, and through word of mouth and volunteer support, a growing network of Art Aids Art supporters has been hosting parties ever since at homes, churches and community gatherings.”
More than 100 parties have taken place in dozens of American states, even in Florence, Italy. Local hosts have included All Saints Episcopal Church, United Nations Association of Pasadena, Vroman’s Bookstore, the Light Bringer Project, Caltech and Marshall Fundamental School, among many others.
Any individual, community organization, or faith community can host events that include multimedia presentations and fundraiser sales of beadwork, rtisan jewelry and wearable art handmade by South African women. The artists get paid upfront at fair trade prices and the profit made from sales in America is reinvested in Khayelitsha. In July, Art Aids Art will be wholesaling South African art for the first time at the L.A. Mart Gift Show. Meanwhile, the organization continues to raise awareness about South African issues here at home.
“We are developing a multi-disciplinary curriculum about contemporary South Africa and how the issues the country is facing are connected to our own communities,” said Harding. “The goal is to pilot this educational program in Pasadena area schools, connecting it to the city’s anti-Apartheid activism of the 1980s and 90s."
"While things are better, poverty is a song we all know,” said Garcia. “It’s not a good song.”
In that vein, Art Aids Art also leads service-learning trips to Cape Town called Jungle Justice excursions, giving anyone the opportunity to experience the cultural and scenic beauty of South Africa while participating in local service projects and helping out at eKhaya eKasi. The next trip is scheduled for September. Visit artaidsart.org for more information.
“No matter what skills you possess, you can go on one of these trips and impact lives in South Africa,” said Harding.
Heath’s grandson, Brook Barnes, said going to South Africa with Art Aids Art was a life-changing experience.
“The people there really embraced me,” he said. “I’ve never felt so at home. Helping the people of South Africa had to be one of the happiest moments of my life, and it is something I will remember forever.”
Garcia also stressed the life-changing nature of the Jungle Justice trips.
“We are all Africans,” she said. “Come with us and find Africa in you.”