WHEN Brazilian artist-activist Adriana Bertini slips one of her couture dresses onto a mannequin, she puts a whole new meaning into the phrase "wearing protection."
During the last decade, Bertini has devoted much of her life to gluing and sewing together hundreds of thousands of condoms to create more than 150 dresses, and in so doing she hopes to raise awareness and inspire the use of condoms. Her latest work, a collection titled "Dress Up Against AIDS: Condom Couture by Adriana Bertini," is on display at UCLA's Fowler Museum.
The exhibition, which opened Friday to coincide with World AIDS Day, shows 14 evening dresses designed to recall Chanel and Valentino, Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn.
"The dresses are truly dramatic," says show curator David Gere, associate professor and co-chair of UCLA's Department of World Arts and Cultures and director of UCLA's Art/Global Health Center. "Each dress is named for a woman, and it's as if those women are standing on a pedestal ready to step toward us as we walk through the door."
The works, created exclusively for the L.A. exhibition, include a 2,260-condom hot-pink floor-length number inspired by Brazilian designer Cristobal Balenciaga and titled "Eva," and a short, pouffy, 1,200-condom purple outfit called "Valentina."
"I name the dresses based on the cultural background of the place where I'm doing the exhibit," Bertini says through an interpreter. "Now I get the feeling that people leave the exhibit knowing someone named after the dress, and will multiply, involuntarily, my message, because that person is going to talk about that dress and, more importantly, condom use in a more healthy and fun way."
For Bertini, 35, the exhibition is the culmination of a 20-year journey that began with her work as a Greenpeace activist cleaning condom-littered beaches in southern Brazil. Later, as a volunteer working with HIV-infected children, she was presented with a box of 144 condoms.
"The condoms followed me; I didn't look for them," Bertini says. "It was then that I realized the material was super interesting, so I thought, 'Why can't I do something with them?' "
Her first effort was a modest T-shirt with a single condom on it as decoration. Her arts background and experience in Brazil's fashion industry then led her to experiment with dyeing, cutting, sewing and gluing techniques. Now each dress takes more than 100 hours of labor and at least 1,000 condoms.
"You can see how she's tortured those condoms into new shapes -- sometimes with a snip, sometimes with an iron and sometimes with techniques she hasn't revealed to us," Gere says.
Bertini's work has been shown all over the world, including the last three International AIDS Conferences. Concurrent with the Fowler show, Bertini has 14 dresses at Chicago's Columbia College and one in the United Nations' main hall.
But as much as she enjoys seeing her work in a museum, Bertini says she gets equal satisfaction showing her works in poor communities where it's often difficult to talk about sexuality and condom use. Last year, for example, she could be found toting a mannequin through the streets of Senegal on her way to speak with young people.
Though Bertini's dresses have been generally well received, she's faced some opposition in her home country. One time, Bertini was assaulted by an umbrella-wielding woman outraged by one of her exhibitions.
"Adriana has witnessed a fair amount of prejudice against her project on account of the fact that the Catholic Church does not encourage the use of condoms," Gere says. "But she's an activist, and she's willing to do what's necessary to save lives."
'Dress Up Against AIDS'
by Adriana Bertini
Where: Fowler Museum at UCLA, UCLA campus, Westwood
When: Noon to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays, noon to 8 p.m. Thursdays
Ends: March 11
Info: (310) 825-4361, www.fowler.ucla.edu