Art Can Heal - 3 Artists Living With HIV Who Use Creativity to Empower

May 3, 2024
4 min
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Three individuals in a triptych image: Veritee Reed Hall, Abdul-Aliy A. Muhammad, Affrekka Jefferson | SisterLove, Inc Atlanta Free HIV/AIDS Testing

Hearing that you have a positive HIV diagnosis can be traumatic and frightening.

Mental illnesses like depression and anxiety are common and are compounded by the symptoms of HIV. These can be treated through medication or therapy, but in rare cases, people find that their art is the ultimate form of therapy for them.

Art provides an outlet to express themselves in a way that nothing else can. The process of painting or drawing creates a tangible product that they can touch and hold onto as they work through their emotions.

I" want to break down the stigma associated with the virus. And have worked hard ever since to do so."

Art is not only a tool to deal with their diagnosis, many have gone on to use art as way to protest and advocate for change - from highlighting the effects of stigma on people living with HIV to fighting against misconceptions about how HIV is transmitted.

Check out these three incredible artists from the Visual AIDS Artist+ Registry

Affrekka Jefferson


Born Paula Jefferson, Affrekka, added the ethnic moniker to her given name when she was 13.

Always passionate about drawing, Affrekka holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from New York's School of Visual Arts and has studied everything from painting to construction technology in what has become a lifetime of education and creation for her.

"I still believe in the great academic traditions of drawing and painting," she says, "above and beyond the mechanical and technological advances of the last few decades." Affrekka's artwork -- largely created on wood or linoleum but often with oil on canvas as well -- is powerfully tied to her embrace of African culture and her own family's past, as can be seen in works like "Violation of Africa," above. She proudly shares the fact that she was descended from one of Thomas Jefferson's slaves. Never mistake her, though, for a person who conforms to stereotypes in her art or in her life.

"African art remains a most important influence on my life and work, a central theme which permeates my very existence and everything I have to contribute," she says. "And yet, my favorite of favorites remains Rembrandt."

Affrekka, 52, was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. She was a lifetime member of the Art Students' League, has her art on permanent display at the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration in Brooklyn, and is the former Art Director of the Jamaica Arts Council. Her HIV-positive status strengthened her desire to see, learn and achieve more with her life each day. "I cherish the time I have on this earth," she says. "I want to resist every attempt to limit my possibilities and to diminish my growth, so that I am able as a creative woman to say something beautiful, worthy and new."

Photo Credit: Ero Rose.

Abdul-Aliy A. Muhammad


Abdul-Aliy is a writer/poet from Philadelphia, PA. They’ve been living with HIV since 2008 and write about their experiences with anti-Black racism, medicalized surveillance and intimacy.

Born on October 26, 1983, they are deeply connected to the Black cultural production of the 1990s and early 2000s, this is often reflected in the work they generate.

Veritee Reed Hall


I live in Cornwall UK, have one child now 29 and I am now 65 years old and was diagnosed HIV positive in late 2006, along with my husband. We were only diagnosed because both of us had been been feeling quite unwell for over a year and he then became critically ill. It turned out he had HIV and a CD4 of 8 and and AIDs defining infection PCP. I had a low CD4 count of 75 but I had no infections. I still felt terrible though.

We never suspected. We have been together since 1984. It was a huge shock.It was also for me ironic as I well knew how not to get HIV.

I had in the past done some HIV activism and as a qualified and senior youth worker for most of my working life had a special interest in sexual and reproductive health, advice and education, which included HIV.

In fact in the 1990s had been as a paid youth worker part of a project working with those who were HIV positive to raise awareness of HIV among young people. The project ran awareness sessions and workshops and education on HIV and I worked with HIV positive people. Never thinking , then I would ever be HIV positive myself!!One of the reasons for my lifelong interest was I lost a good friend and one time boyfriend in the 80s due to AIDs, before we had the wonderful ARV drugs we have now.But when my husband and I started to feel unwell in 2003 it never occurred to me, or him, we had HIV.

I had never been unfaithful to him. But it seems he had but some years ago. We think we know when we got HIV, which was some years before our diagnosis, but we will never know for sure.I made the decision straight away to be open about my status. Among many other reasons I felt it would be disingenuous to have done the work I had in raising awareness and education and then hide my status when I too had HIV. And an insult in my mind to my friend and others that had gone on this journey before us and the many who had lost the battle.

I want to break down the stigma associated with the virus. And have worked hard ever since to do so.

Mostly I use social media for this purpose as I live in very rural Cornwall UK and this is always available, when other arena's are not.

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