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Kia LaBeija
“Kia LaBeija Featuring The Moon”Courtesy of the artist and Royale Projects

The vogueing, radical artist de-stigmatising HIV with self-portraiture

Kia LaBeija transforms herself into a glamorous, shimmering monster to push past a period of extreme vulnerability

“I wanted to explore the idea of feeling like a monster, or a mutant.” These are the words of Kia LaBeija, an interdisciplinary artist whose arresting self-portraits, formidable voguing skills, and affiliation with the legendary House of LaBeija make her one of the most fascinating visionaries in the art industry, period. She’s discussing new photo series, Fear is Only A Fraction of Love, which was recently displayed in the first solo show of her career so far. It’s just another highlight of what has already been a stellar year for LaBeija; in January, she became one of only four black women to ever grace the cover of ArtForum, an esteemed international art magazine.

This recognition is long overdue. For centuries, gallery curators have been guilty of overlooking the vast potential of PoC creatives, instead choosing to repeatedly hang the same painters, sculptors, and illustrators on their walls.

“I don’t necessarily think the art world is shifting,” responds LaBeija, when asked whether an era of diverse representation truly is upon us. “I think people are shifting, and that reflects in art spaces. There are stronger platforms for artists of colour because we are building them for ourselves. There are so many incredible black and brown artists that are really shining right now, and vocalising their worth. It’s interesting though because I see this level of ‘trendiness’ in diversity, which feels like it almost defeats the point. There is a shift, but there’s still a lot of work to be done.”

“I wanted to address the grandeur and power of women – especially women of colour, who are often made to feel invisible” – Kia LaBeija

This notion of autonomy and self-control permeates LaBeija’s powerful self-portraits, all of which serve as a musing on her own life. Born in 1990 to an HIV+ mother in Hell’s Kitchen, a thriving hub of queer creativity nestled on the very edge of Manhattan, LaBeija has grown up with the virus. 

Her work often references the ways in which HIV has influenced her life; in one of her best-known photographs she stands, nonchalant, in a bejewelled, red strapless prom dress whilst a doctor checks her blood. Similar themes are woven throughout these new images, but they’re different: they’re darker, more enigmatic, laden with intergalactic references and sealed with a streak of blood red. “I was really interested in referencing the stars, galaxy, and the unknown magnitude of the universe,” she says of its inspiration. “It was conceptualised in a time where there were people who were making me feel small, so I wanted to address the grandeur and power of women – especially women of colour, who are often made to feel invisible.”

Borne of a poem she wrote six years ago, entitled “Tainted”, the creation of this photo series has seemingly become an act of catharsis for LaBeija: “(When I wrote the poem), I was in a place in my life where I had been experiencing discrimination because of my HIV+ status. I had to disclose it to every new partner which, at the time, felt like the hardest thing to do. As much as I wanted to feel normal, I felt like relationships – whether casual or serious – always came with this tough moment of extreme vulnerability. 

The poem lay dormant. Meanwhile, LaBeija meditated frequently on its themes and toyed with the idea of transforming it into a new photo series. Chewing on its subject matter became impossible, as she repeatedly came back into contact with this aforementioned stigma: “You never know how someone is going to react,” she laments. “Women living with HIV are more likely to experience intimate partner violence. I had already been in a situation that had broken me, and as I put the pieces back together and allowed myself more experiences, I thought it would get easier. But it hurt every time.”

Despite the darkness which lingers – both aesthetically and conceptually – throughout the portraits, LaBeija’s signature shimmer of glamour is still present. “There is something so magical and enchanting about ‘glamour’ to me – it’s almost like this ultimate beauty,” she enthuses. This lick of gloss which seeps into her work is deliberate, designed to contrast sharply with the harsh realities of sickness.

“Illness isn’t something that is ever portrayed as glamorous, especially HIV, but I think it’s all a state of mind. The world heavily stigmatises people living with HIV/Aids, and I’d like to break that mould,” she states. “The beginning of the Aids epidemic was devastating, traumatic and heartbreaking but, because of those who fought for treatment, healthcare and visibility, folks like me are living healthy lives. The early days left a long-lasting impression, and I think it’s important to honour those incredibly sad stories – but also to tell new ones.”

This legacy of activism and resistance is all too easily forgotten. Protest organisations and collectives including ACT UP and the Aids Coalition to Unleash Power mobilised en masse, fighting not only for medical research and better treatment, but also a dissolution of the stigma which saw the virus branded a “gay plague”. This is definitively not true. While gay men are still more likely to contract HIV, there are enormous amounts of women worldwide living with HIV – although research has advanced to the extent that the viral load can now be rendered ‘undetectable’ through antiretroviral treatment. More recent breakthroughs like PrEP and PEP have also provided effective methods of prevention, meaning that HIV+ people being treated can now have unprotected sex, get pregnant, and live their lives freely without fear of transmission.

The last time LaBeija spoke to Dazed, she mused on her inclusion in Art Aids America as well as her frustration at the final result. Issuing a statement, she explained: “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 didn’t respond to me because they cannot take the power of a black woman. They even dodged me at the opening. Shade.” Her words invoked genuine change, acting as a catalyst for the retroactive inclusion of more PoC artists to the exhibition.

Anyone familiar with working in any kind of art institution will understand how risky it can be to speak out about inclusivity or the process leading up to exhibitions. Creative industries are notoriously fickle and lacking in transparency, meaning that statements like these rarely go unpunished.

But it’s a risk LaBeija has always been willing to take. “It’s natural for me,” she shrugs. “I’ve been practising honesty as much as possible; communicating clearly how you feel helps filter out the bullshit. It’s not easy, and at times it’s very scary, but it’s so important because the only way we can help to reshape this world is by sharing ur opinions, and having open dialogue with one another. If you feel injustice, you have to talk about it. Sometimes you have to scream about it.”

LaBeija also felt her work was misrepresented as “victim art”, a narrative often threaded disproportionately throughout discussions of HIV. The virus does, of course, have a harrowing history of tragedy, but it also contains a story of survival. This is the message LaBeija chooses to communicate through her work: “I use red a lot because it is a survival colour, one of power and resistance. Lips are a site of communication, it’s important to highlight that. I am blessed to have the ability to speak – I think a lot of people take that for granted. Red is also incredibly seductive. I like to seduce people with my ideas.”

“I use red a lot because it is a survival colour, one of power and resistance. Lips are a site of communication, it’s important to highlight that” – Kia LaBeija

Incidentally, LaBeija’s life has followed a similarly positive arc. Years after writing the poem which laid the conceptual foundations for this new photo series, LaBeija found herself in a “really beautiful, empowering relationship” which gave her the confidence to fully realise its potential. “In this work, my body is the site,” she explains. “My partner Taina actually helped me paint my body for the images. Over time, the work has become even deeper than I had initially anticipated.”

Although it’s an age-old cliché, the exhibition and its creation truly do reflect a journey. LaBeija describes feeling more sophisticated, more fully-realised and more in tune with her artistry than ever before, alluding to a number of exciting opportunities coming her way.

Her success is heartening not only because the concept for this new photo series was laid down during a period of intense darkness, but because LaBeija is arguably one of the most vital artists in the industry. She deserves to be seen. As she moves into the latter half of her twenties, she describes a feeling of acceptance which she says influenced the series’ title, coined last year in a journal entry. “Fear is Only A Fraction of Love… Coming to the end of my twenties, I’ve been feeling so many intense growing pains,” she says, speaking candidly of a new chapter. “I’ve never felt so scared in my whole life. But what I’ve realised is that fear is not something separate from love; all things are love,  and fear is just a fraction of it.”

Fear is Only A Fraction Of Love is now on view at Royale Projects, 432 Alameda, Los Angeles