Using Art to Fight AIDS: Profile of Dr. Solange Arazi Caillaud

By: Komal Patel

Solange Arazi Caillaud found herself quite lost during a biology conference at a 2004 pediatric HIV training in Paris. Still in her residency, the topics being covered were a bit too complex for her, and so she took to doodling. What came out of it was not just a new artistic subject for Caillaud—it was also a new way to fuel the fight against HIV/AIDS.

Caillaud dubbed the character that came out of these doodles Ludiccocus; coccus means bacteria with a spherical shape and ludic means playful. Ludicoccus is thus a cute little character made up of a large circular head, a small circular body, no arms, triangular feet, and ears somewhat like Mickey Mouse. His unevenly sized eyes and lack of a mouth and nose give him a sad but adorable facial expression, reminiscent of the Disney character Wall-E. Caillaud maintains that Ludicoccus has a life experience as well as a personality.

“He took shape and grew his personality from my infectious disease training in the lab and the hospital,” Caillaud explained, currently a pediatrician working with diagnosing and treating adolescents with HIV at the Petrona V. de Cordero Hospital in Buenos Aires. “He is like a friendly, funny, playful character, but at the same time he is representing infectious disease and death. So he unifies my two discourses, my medicine and my art, at the same time.”

Caillaud began medical school at the University of Buenos Aires at the same time she began her art training. Since then, she has progressed greatly in both fields. She has engaged in extensive infectious pediatric disease research in HIV, attended many conferences, and completed much international training. When it comes to art, she has not only been a part of collective shows, but she has had personal exhibitions as well.

After winning an art competition in 2009 for a piece regarding the flu pandemic, Caillaud, who admits that among her artist friends, she’s the “weird” one because she is the doctor-artist, was inspired to integrate her medical work with HIV/AIDS into her artwork.

“It’s my work, my every day work, and I needed to paint about that,” said Caillaud.

She hopes to achieve different goals for different audiences. Caillaud hopes that her artwork will show society the necessity of providing children living with HIV with proper treatment and helping patients better understand the virus and infection.

For the community, Caillaud wants to “to generate a different viewpoint of the problem, to raise awareness of the epidemic and the dimensions of it, to get the public involved in the fight against AIDS, and to bring closer certain topics regarding prevention and care,” a mission very important to her.

Caillaud applied to participate in last year’s National AIDS Conference that took place in Washington, D.C, and received a scholarship to help fund this venture. She exhibited a series of paintings there regarding HIV called We Have AIDS.

Callaiud’s series We Have AIDS consists of five paintings, each featuring the Ludicoccus and created between 2010 and 2011. The first painting is called We Have AIDS. This piece features a world map in which both water and land are made up of the Ludicocci. The colors black, blue, red, and orange are present in the painting. Across the top of the painting, different words, statistics, and phrases relating to HIV/AIDS are painted scrolling, with the phrase “We Have AIDS” repeating.

Caillaud chose to make the first painting a map because she wanted to convey that HIV does not affect a certain type of people. It is a global epidemic, and as one society, this recognition is fundamental to making any progress regarding the issue.

The second painting of the series is called Against the Virus. This painting is very complex; in the center of the canvas against a yellow background is a mass of blue Ludicocci. In the upper center of this group of blue Ludicocci is a smaller circle of red Ludicocci, some of them even slightly misshapen.

Within this center of this smaller circle of red Ludiccoci, Caillaud adds something new to turn the painting into mixed media—two pills are glued to the canvas. There is also a column of different pills, of all shapes and sizes, in their casings glued in between the mass of Ludicocci and two large figures of Ludicocci painted near the right edge of the canvas; these larger Ludicocci have pills as eyes. On the opposite edge of the canvas there is a column of painted letters representing the code of the virus.

Having a one-pill treatment for HIV, while it doesn’t change the fact that the virus still causes a chronic disease, restores hope for Caillaud. This treatment allows her patients to be able to live with the virus and function almost as if they did not have it. The treatment brings a sense of normality to her patients’ lives, and this painting is a manifestation of that.

Me and Everyone is the third painting. This painting features the colors pink, red, and black. Across the top of the painting, scrolling words appear as they did in the painting We Have AIDS. In this particular painting, the words are in Spanish and read “Yo Con Vos,” meaning me with you all, “Yo Por Arriba,” meaning me on top, and “Yo Por Bajo,” meaning me on bottom.

Underneath the scrolling words are Ludicocci in what seem to be various sexual positions. Below these larger Ludicocci is a mass of smaller Ludicocci that fills up the rest of the painting.

Caillaud’s inspiration for this painting came from her wish to eradicate sexual discrimination. Caillaud finds that sexuality is an important topic to discuss, but the stigma attached to certain sexualities prevents many from talking about it.

The series’ fourth painting is entitled Responsible Love and involves the colors pink, peach, blue, green, and yellow. The majority of the top half of the painting is a splattery image with two enlarged Ludicocci kissing in the center. Underneath this is more of Caillaud’s characteristic scrolling text. The text is in Spanish as well, with words such as “confianza,” “amor,” “respeto,” and “fidelidad,” which mean confidence, love, respect, and fidelity respectively, repeating. Below the text is a mass of smaller pink and peach Ludicocci.

Caillaud finds that discussing love is really important for fighting against HIV because it leads to further discussion of protection and prevention. As part of her job involves working with youth, Caillaud talks to her patients about topics like these.

The final piece of the series is dubbed Getting Involved in the Struggle. This painting is done on a narrower canvas. The upper half depicts a large red ribbon with an equally large Ludicoccus leaning against it. Underneath the ribbon are three smaller Ludicocci with red ribbons painted on their chests. Below this, the scrolling text reappears, this time reading “Sumate A La Lucha,” which means “Join the Fight.” A line of marching Ludicocci, all sporting the red ribbon, separates the lines of text.

The red ribbon is an awareness symbol of HIV/AIDS. In 1991, the Visual AIDS Organization, a coalition of artists working towards HIV/AIDS awareness, created the Red Ribbon Project.

“The amount of work made around HIV/AIDS that includes the red ribbon is beyond countable,” said Ted Kerr, Projects Director at Visual AIDS. “The red ribbon is an activist tool, a source of inspiration, and a way to create awareness as a global practice. The red ribbon is a legendary design that can be seen as the inspiration behind everything from Pink Ribbon campaign’s to Live Strong bracelets.”

“The AIDS crisis is ongoing and so are the many ways that people are responding, including through art,” said Kerr. “We know that art has made a difference. It has created a space and place for people to process, heal, generate attention, and create awareness. We also know that art alone is not enough, and that working with activists, people living with HIV and others, we make a huge difference. “

While the idea of using art to raise HIV awareness may seem surprising, it felt completely normal to Caillaud.

“I think that art is very important because it involves concepts and feelings at the same time, and it provokes an emotional and intellectual response,” said Caillaud. “Art has played a central role in the response to AIDS. As we all know at the beginning of the epidemic, everywhere art has played an important role to announce the epidemic, to be aware about it.”

While Caillaud has not been working with AIDS paintings for very long, she has noticed a big difference within her friends, especially her artist friends.

“I noticed that we started to talk about sex, and we didn’t before,” said Caillaud. “We [now] did in the right way, not just to make jokes, but to talk seriously about sex and about AIDS. And they had a lot of questions, but sometimes you don’t have the space or time or the person to ask of it, so I think that’s one of the objectives [of her artwork]. To be closer to people just to answer questions.”

Questions are extremely important to Caillaud, who also gives guest lectures in order to encourage discourse about HIV/AIDS. Most of the questions directed to Caillaud are about the scientific aspects of HIV/AIDS, such as transmission and medical breakthroughs.

“They aren’t silly questions,” said Caillaud. “All the questions are good because without questions, we don’t get the information, and without the information, we don’t take the precautions. It’s essential to answer questions.”

Caillaud believes that the more people openly discuss HIV/AIDS, the less discrimination there will be towards those with HIV. Being informed about matters such as transmission is the best way to avoid discrimination because it reduces the stigmas of the disease, and she hopes to use her artwork to raise society’s curiosity.

“The idea of my artwork is to talk in the community, in groups of people that aren’t involved in AIDS treatment or care, because they need to know about that more and we need to talk about that more,” said Caillaud, adding that many people believe avoiding the topic of HIV will make the virus disappear. “So the people started to forget about HIV. But HIV is still there. And HIV doesn’t discriminate. That’s the problem.”

Globally and as of 2011, statistics from the World Health Organization show that 34 million people have HIV.

According to the CDC, there are over 1.1 million people in the United States living with HIV, and 18.5% aren’t aware of their condition.

UNAIDS reports that an estimated 110,000 people in Argentina have HIV.

According to AVERT, an international HIV and AIDS charity, the number of people living with HIV rose from 8 million in 1990 to 34 million by the end of 2010.

“The UNAIDS Global Report 2012, states that 25 countries have decreased new HIV infections by half since 2001,” said Caitlin Mahon, a research and information officer at AVERT. “HIV infections among newborn children have also declined by 50%, meaning that prevention of mother-to-child-transmission (PMTCT) is working, and eliminating new infections among children is within our sights.”

While these successes show an improvement in the fight against HIV, worldwide, there still are problem areas.

“However, regions such as the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and Eastern Europe and Central Asia (EECA) have failed to curb the AIDS epidemic,” said Mahon. “In particular, MENA saw an increase in 35% of new HIV infections, and an increase in 17% of AIDS-related deaths. Progress in EECA has also been disappointing, with a 21% increase in AIDS-related deaths between 2005 and 2011.”

Reducing the discrimination surrounding HIV is another goal Caillaud feels very personally about. She has friends with HIV, and she blames discrimination for what instills their fear in disclosing their condition to others.

“We still have discrimination in Argentina and I think in all the countries,” said Caillaud.

Sometimes this discrimination manifests subconsciously, and it may not be recognized.

During Caillaud’s lecture at New York University’s Buenos Aires campus, she explained that many countries have laws that do not allow people with HIV to enter that country (in fact, it was not until 2009 that President Obama lifted United States’ 22-year-old ban so that HIV-positive people could enter the country).

When a student asked why denying HIV-positive admission to a country was considered so negative since it kept the infection from spreading, Caillaud was very resolute in her answer–no matter what the reasoning behind this, it continued to stigmatize the disease.

“It’s a way to discriminate,” she said to the student. “It’s like to be in a prison, but the whole country is the prison. It’s not about respecting the human rights and the liberty and the independence. That’s my point of view.”

Caillaud hopes to reach the masses through her artwork, because she believes they need the most education about HIV/AIDS.

“I think the research part and medical part is very aware about AIDS,” said Caillaud. “The medical society is very involved in the fight against the virus. The studies are going on, and we are trying to have an effective vaccine, and that’s really the will. We all want the same, and we are on the way—not in five years, but who knows. But that’s totally different from society.”

“I think the character and my paintings are very funny, so we can be close to the painting, and then we discover that it’s not so nice or funny because it talks about infection, disease, or death, but in the beginning, we’re not rejecting it as always,” said Caillaud. “Because in the beginning when we show an image that’s very violent or dramatic or death or black and dark, the first thing you do is say, ‘oh that’s not about me.’ But that’s not the idea with HIV; it’s about everyone.”

While art is one of the main ways Caillaud is able to help raise awareness about HIV, it is not the only way she is able to reach out to others. Her work as a pediatrician helping adolescents with HIV, while sometimes challenging, is a big part of her life and her mission against the illness.

“I like it, but sometimes adolescents are difficult, because they don’t want to listen to me,” said Caillaud. “They don’t want to listen about AIDS, and they don’t want to take the pills. They are just bored, and they don’t want to because they’ve been taking pills for 13 years or more, so they don’t want to take them because they want to be like the other ones who don’t take anything.”

The difficulties of getting through to teenagers do not deter Caillaud, and she still believes her medical work with her adolescent patients does make a difference to them.

“I have a good feeling with them, and they listen more to me than other doctors because I’m more informal, and I talk to them about sex without problems,” said Caillaud. “I think they come to the consultations more. I think they choose me.”


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May 17, 2013 · 5:15 pm

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