Bangkok art exhibition highlights sex work stigma | Connect Asia

Bangkok art exhibition highlights sex work stigma

Bangkok art exhibition highlights sex work stigma

Updated 3 April 2013, 15:36 AEDT

Last night saw the opening of an art exhibition in Bangkok, showcasing the works of 50 artists from across southeast Asia.

But what made this exhibition different was that all the artists were sex workers.

Their art work explored themes of HIV, stigma and discrimination, and the way people overcome those challenges to survive, to support their families and to have fun.

It's a project put together by the UN Development Program and a Thai-based organisation called Empower.

Presenter: Liam Cochrane

Speaker: Clif Cortez, UNDP's team leader on HIV, Health and Development

CORTEZ: There were about 50 artists representing countries from throughout South-East Asia, mostly representing ASEAN-based countries, but including East Timor. And there were visual pieces, photographic pieces, paintings, performance art. So it was a variety of different mediums that these folks put together in their home countries and then sent to Bangkok for this exhibition.

COCHRANE: So tell us a bit more about how the exhibition came about and who was involved?

CORTEZ: Well, the brain power behind it and the human power behind it was Empower, which is a Thai-based civil society organisation that works on behalf of sex workers and their rights and this includes women, men and transgender people who are engaged in sex work and they work with their partners in various countries throughout the region on issues of rights of sex workers, particularly the right not to become HIV infected and to get information and to get services. And it was their idea to put on an art exhibition of the work of their partners from various countries. They've seen their partners work and different times, they'd gone there and worked together on other things and they thought this would be a good way to make a statement to bring attention to issues of sex workers and rights and certainly HIV and stigma discrimination.

COCHRANE: So the work featured in the show, was it produced by sex workers who already make art as a sideline hobby or was this something that was quite consciously developed, a wider program to use after some other cause?

CORTEZ: Some of both. The original idea behind it was because of the artists that exists in the very midst of these sex workers themselves. But the idea for trying to send a message is what the sex workers starting with Empower sort of coalesced the idea of putting together a show and having a competition, which they did at the local level and that was the art that eventually made its way to Bangkok. And so it was a conscious effort to get their message out, to put together some specific art, but it was based in the reality that we have some very artistic people in the communities that we're talking about.

COCHRANE: Tell us a little bit about the importance of addressing some of these issues as far as HIV, as far as discrimination and stigma, in terms of sex workers within ASEAN countries?

CORTEZ: Sure. Well, there's two things there then. One is the whole issue of sex work stigma and discrimination and the other is the ASEAN bit of that. The first thing I'll say is that of course everybody, anybody who's kept up with what's going on in HIV over the last 30 years certainly knows that there's a lot of stigma that attaches itself to this disease and this epidemic. And unfortunately, most often attaches itself to people who are either infected or are perceived to be affected and one of the leading groups that falls into that category are, of course, sex workers. People perceive them to be people who engage in high risk behaviours, as they used to say, and are otherwise marginalised long before HIV came along in the communities in which they live very often. And so this exhibition was meant to say something about the fact that these are people that we're talking about, that we are people, that we are living lives that are not just about sex work, but that in the case of the folks involved, include sex work, and that they also don't want to have HIV, don't want to be infected with HIV. And if they have HIV, they want to be able to get care and support and information and be supported by their communities and their families.

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