How the art world misses out vital stories about Aids

A recent exhibition entitled Art, Aids, America caused controversy for its lack of racial diversity – we reached out to artists with personal experience of HIV to explain why this hurt so much

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Mourning Sickness , February 2014 Kia LaBeija
“Mourning Sickness”, February 2014, taken from Twenty-FourPhotography Kia LaBeija

There are few diseases more stigmatised than HIV. The degenerative virus has, and continues to, ravage communities worldwide, yet mainstream media outlets are often reluctant to discuss its effects. It’s exactly this reluctance to explore its consequences that made an exhibition entitled Art, Aids, America (exhibition images here) seem fairly revolutionary. For once, here was an event promising to comprehensively map the effects of HIV and “explore the whole spectrum of artistic responses to Aids”. Initial signs were promising, and optimistic reviews soon trickled in. The Huffington Post called the exhibition “important, historically salient, stylistically diverse and politically inspirational”. These statements may remain true, but the event soon made headlines for a supposed lack of black artists – of 107 artists spotlighted in the original exhibition, only four were black. The result of this realisation was a 30-person ‘die-in’ at the Tacoma Museum, a tribute to the 700,000+ African Americans who were or are affected by the virus.

To their credit, co-curators Rock Hushka and Jonathan Katz saw these responses as a learning opportunity. Hushka gave an impassioned speech, explaining that he was initially rocked by the allegations but soon reminded himself of art’s intention to make positive change. The exhibition was subsequently revised to include more black artists, and Hushka attended a workshop explaining institutionalised racism and the ways it can be unlearned. Speaking to Dazed about the controversy, Katz explained a misconception; that the exhibition was not a survey concerning art about Aids, but a “didactic exhibition about how Aids altered the course and trajectory of American art. Consequently, the vast bulk of the exhibition concerns work made the millennium’s turn and, in that regard, black artists were scarce – perhaps a consequence of the double marginalisation that Aids and race engender. We did our historical research, and there are only two works that emerged after the controversy that we could have included and didn’t.”

“Studies and statistics show that HIV disproportionately affects black communities – if anything, it’s more difficult to bypass this fact than it is to acknowledge it”

Katz explains that these works have been added to the exhibition and will appear in the Chicago iteration of Art, Aids, America, but he also explains that he and his co-curator were interested in showing the early work of black artists but their search yielded few results. Their response to the controversy was to remake the exhibition as a survey. “This allowed the inclusion of more black artists,” explained Katz, “but also led to the misperception that the exhibition was always a survey, and one deficient in black representation at that. A glance at my lead catalogue essay would confirm the very different premises of the exhibition when first shown.”

Despite the efforts made, many were still left dissatisfied, including Kia LaBeija, a photographer whose beautiful self-portrait series, Twenty-Four, made the initial cut. “One of my (many) problems with Art, Aids, America is the label next to my work is totally off”, she reveals over email. “It makes me feel like I wasn’t heard throughout the process. I sent artist statements and beautiful critiques of the work that were spot on, but they went unnoticed, just like all of my other emails in the early stages of the show. They don’t respond to me because they cannot take the power of a black woman. They even dodged me at the opening. Shade.” Katz denies personal knowledge of these allegations, claiming that he did not know LaBeija and acted as an outside curator not involved in negotiations over work. He recommended contact with Tacoma Museum but, when Dazed reached out for a statement, the response reiterated one made by Rock Hushka: “Kia is a talented artist with a brilliant future. We are grateful for her continuing participation in Art, Aids, America.” Hushka himself didn’t respond when contacted directly.

LaBeija’s frustrations are representative of many minority artists misunderstood by media and critics alike. She admits that she often tires of tokenism – “I recently did a music video that went pretty viral, and many articles state I was ‘voguing for HIV awareness’. Why is that assumed? Just because I am an HIV+ body? It will always be a part of my story, but it shouldn’t be the only thing that makes me relevant as an artist. I don’t make victim art. I make survival art.”

Studies and statistics show that HIV disproportionately affects black communities – if anything, it’s more difficult to bypass this fact than it is to acknowledge it. A recent study shows that, in 2014, 44 per cent of all new HIV diagnoses in the US were among African Americans, who comprise just 12 per cent of the country’s population. Furthermore, The Advocate argues that other statistics are also at play – a disproportionate amount of African Americans live in poverty thus are excluded from costly healthcare, whereas the ongoing issue of institutionalised racism means that black communities are often at a legal disadvantage.

“The complicated history (of Aids) is probably the reason (for this erasure)” – Kalup Linzy

When asked about the frequent erasure of racial minorities from discussions of HIV, performance artist Kalup Linzy is equally perplexed. “When I was growing up in the 1980s and 1990s I remember it being portrayed as a gay man’s disease, then it shifted to African-American women being the largest group contracting it. I feel the media demonised infected people early on, especially gay men, but then it shifted to the down-low bisexual Black male. In terms of the present day, the complicated history is probably the reason (for this erasure).” Linzy himself is one of the few black artists featured in the exhibition – he plays various characters in his work, explaining this as his extreme way to convey his feelings on various topics.

Artist Jessica Whitbread is similarly contemplative; she brings her own lived experience as a queer woman with HIV into her work but also combines art and activism. She is quick to point out geographical context – although her art generally exists in a western context, her paid work and advocacy is global. “In western countries, white gay men (alongside their often-forgotten lesbian sisters) were excellent at organising in the early days of the epidemic. As time went on, this same group continued to dominate the conversation – POC, sex workers, drug-takers and women were also organising their communities as well, but unfortunately it’s been forgotten in the history books.” She links this back to Art, Aids, America and points directly to a video of Kia LeBeija and writer, artist, archivist and activist Sur Rodney (Sur) – who wrote the show’s catalogue – speaking about race, gender, and identity (below).

In her separate email response, LaBeija points to class as one major problem – she argues that the faces of POC are visible on subway cars and bus stops yet rarely visible in the mainstream media. Aids victims overseas are the one true exception; so many outlets focus on the effects of the disease in Africa that they neglect the conversation in America. “Recently, I have been connecting with adults who were diagnosed as babies in the 90s, and we all have similar stories of losing parents, navigating the whirlwind of medication and feeling lost and horrified as we reach sexually active ages. I am 26 and only now am I hearing that I was not the only one.” Crucially, if it weren’t for LaBeija’s inclusion in the exhibition, the show would have no representation of an HIV+ black woman living with the disease at all. “The nostalgia and romanticism of the 80s and early 90s is violent in the way that it omits our stories and narratives. This is not to invalidate out queer and straight non-POC brothers and sisters, but your story is not the only one. Why do we only matter when we are far away?”

“The nostalgia and romanticism of the 80s and early 90s is violent in the way that it omits our stories and narratives. This is not to invalidate out queer and straight non-POC brothers and sisters, but your story is not the only one. Why do we only matter when we are far away?” – Kia LaBeija

Art, Aids, America may have become a scapegoat of sorts; it is frequently referenced as an example of an exhibition failing to highlight diversity. Yet Katz states that this was never the intention – he argues, instead, that the lack of available work is the problem. He also underlines a wider problem in the art community and bemoans the lack of criticism afforded to other exhibitions. “I am astounded that the bulk of US exhibitions at major museums, which rarely so much as acknowledge racial difference, have escaped controversy and that this exhibition, which was quite self-conscious about race, was singled out. I fail to understand why the erasure of black artists across the museum world isn't being addressed. I fail to understand why the problem isn't framed as systemic.”

Despite the various critiques of the exhibition, the resulting conversation has at least brought issues of institutionalised racism in the art world to the forefront and, in the process, shone a particular spotlight on the minority artists involved. “When I was a teenager, I honestly believed my future as a gay man was dim and my life would be tragic”, says Linzy of his own experience with the virus. “However, I am here. I have a voice and I am fortunate to be supported on a variety of platforms, living my truth. God has blessed me with talents and gifts too.”

As for LaBeija, she offers a powerful message of solidarity to those struggling with the disease – “You are not alone. Cisgender and transgender women, POC, children and young adults need representation too. We are here, we have always been here, and we aren’t going anywhere. HIV is a life sentence as of right now; support us, fund us, love us.” Finally, she encourages people to send her messages – which you can do by accessing the ‘contact’ section of her official website. “Some days I’m tired of talking about the impact of HIV and Aids, it’s like ripping a scab off an old wound. Some days I wish I had never opened my mouth, but then I receive messages from other people living positive and I know it’s all worth it. If I can help just one person have a better day than they did before it then I will continue to push. I will push until there’s a cure for this virus and I receive no more messages.”

Find more about Art, Aids, America here

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