About Paper Prayers

The Paper Prayers Campaign began in 1997, initially as an HIV Awareness and advocacy campaign by Artist Proof Studio and in partnership with the Department of Arts and Culture and part of a coalition with a range of NGO’s working in the field. Hundreds of HIV Awareness workshops and printmaking workshops were offered, with the works being exhibited on World AIDS Day at a site in every province around the country.

The concept of Paper Prayers originates from an ancient Japanese custom of offering painted strips of paper as prayers for healing. Participants in workshops make at least two to three Paper Prayers, one which they keep, and one as a gift. For the original campaign, the donated print was exhibited and sold at World AIDS Day or awareness events to raise funds for a particular support project. The process of producing these small works of art creates a supportive environment in which participants gain awareness of HIV/AIDS or a chosen human rights advocacy issue. This awareness is internalized and expressed in a small artwork or ‘visual prayer’ as a gesture of hope or well-being.

Paper Prayers workshops held on every World AIDS Day became a tradition at Artist Proof Studio, and subsequently adapted to extend beyond the HIV and AIDS pandemic in South Africa to other issues that responded to trauma including GBV, Teen pregnancy, gender advocacy, xenophobia and conflict. The practice of using artmaking as a creative response to healing and well-being is powerful, as it promotes visual messages of hope as well as activism, in that participants are able to see themselves as part of the solution.

As part of her PhD fieldwork on the use of arts for social change, Kim Berman and a research team of her students used Paper Prayers as a visual Research method to break the silence and promote activism to support voluntary testing. With support from the Ford Foundation to gather evidence of the impact of arts-based methods, the team conducted Paper Prayers workshops in Phumani Paper craft sites around the country. The impact was published in her book Finding Voice: A visual Arts Approach to Engaging Change (Berman 2017) and the Cultural Action for Change project was documented in Women on Purpose: Resilience and Agency of the Founding women of Phumani paper.

These resources provide the context for the power of art in an activist campaign. Paper Prayers have changed and saved lives though visualising messages of hope as a creative act.

Photos of the University of Pretoria exhibition space

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