Artists Allyson Mitchell, Jessica Whitbread and L.J. Roberts use art & activism to start a new dialogue about all self-identified women, their sexuality and HIV status
by Alina Oswald
Truth is, the subject of women’s rights has always been a controversial one, but possibly never as much as it is today. Now, maybe more than ever, being a woman has become a political topic meant to score points especially on one side of the aisle, an issue able to split society (and, sadly, women as a part of society) along party lines, cultural differences, and religious beliefs. Mike Huckabee called women “helpless” without free, government-provided birth control. Wendy Davis stood for hours, filibustering in the Texas House to oppose a bill that would have almost eliminated the number of women-centered health clinics in the state. Malala Yousafzai faced death when she stood up to the Taliban in her quest to secure the right to education for girls.
Marked by this duality, women’s issues today beg for a new kind of conversation, especially when it comes to HIV/AIDS. This conversation could be one that includes all self-identified women, their sexuality, and how it relates to their HIV status, among other concerns. This conversation becomes possible thanks to artists and activists who unite their voices to deliver a bold, yet necessary message, and open up a dialogue that wasn’t available before. In that sense, the “Queer Threads: Crafting Identity and Community” group show provides a stage on which to have this dialogue. Curated by John Chaich, a past A&U contributor, “Queer Threads” is on view at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, and features works by internationally recognized thread-based artists.
L.J. Roberts is a Brooklyn-based artist whose works were included in “Not Over: 25 Years of Visual AIDS,” “40 Under 40: Craft Futures” at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and, together with Allyson Mitchell, in the upcoming “Alien She” show at The Miller Gallery at Carnegie Mellon University.
Allyson Mitchell has spent the past twenty years creating art, and has exhibited in galleries and festivals around the world. Together with her partner, she runs Feminist Artists Gallery in Toronto. For “Queer Threads” she contributed her Queer Un-Nation flag, and also a bold and sometimes considered controversial poster created in collaboration with Jessica Whitbread.
Jessica Whitbread is also a Toronto-based artist and activist, and global chair of the International Community of Women Living with HIV/AIDS. She’s been involved in the HIV community, among others, by organizing Tea Time events—traveling tea parties that offer HIV-positive women from around the world a safe space to talk about their issues without fear of judgment. Tea Time events involve teacup-and-letter exchanges among women from different corners of the world. Whitbread’s new book is Tea Time: Mapping Informal Networks of Women Living with HIV, which comes out this month.
Part of “Queer Threads,” The Queer Houses of Brooklyn in the Towns of Brekelen, Boswych, and Midwout during the 41st Year of the Stonewall Era is an impressive art piece by L.J. Roberts, now part of the Smithsonian collection, which employs quilting, knitting and embroidery techniques, and was inspired, as explained by Roberts, by a map of the queer collective houses in Brooklyn, in itself a contemporary document of queer life. Also part of the group show is Fuck Positive Women, a poster created by Allyson Mitchell and Jessica Whitbread, and commissioned by Toronto’s AIDS ACTION NOW! poster/VIRUS, a project that combines HIV, art, and activism.
Alina Oswald: What is the message of the work you show in “Queer Threads”?
L.J. Roberts: It is a quilted object referencing the AIDS Quilt, the effects of gentrification of AIDS, in terms of how the pandemic has been a factor in the shifts in demographics and neighborhood. It is historical, and also contemporary.
Allyson Mitchell: As the International Community of Women Living with HIV says [referring to the poster]: “This is the kind of messaging we wanted to have,” messaging that makes a debate, a conversation, elicits a response that isn’t apathetic or complacent. The message [of the poster] can help [women, especially HIV-positive women] be recognized, and be counted.
Jessica Whitbread: We collaborated throughout the time [in creating the poster], but Allyson was the one who took the lead, and put it together. This particular piece is about the lack of representation of queer women living with HIV, and the fact that queer women are left out of any kind of discussions around HIV.
Why is it necessary to make a bold statement with your artwork?
LJR: I feel I’ve been talking about AIDS since I was in undergrad, which is thirteen years ago, [and yet] talking about [HIV] positive women stuff is still a new thing. It’s a dialogue that needs to be started. It’s a dialogue I want to be engaged in.
AM: There’s a kind of stigma, culturally, around women taking an active position around being sexual and [having] sexual feelings, and desires, particularly [HIV] positive women. I think the language that we chose to use [in the poster] is harsh, to the point. It’s rude. Direct. It’s not making it easily digestible.
JW: [The poster] was meant to provoke, to start a dialogue and engage people in a different way. Drawing from my own experience as a woman living with HIV myself, I think that women living with HIV are often de-sexualized. A lot of times, the HIV movement frames women as victims, and women’s bodies as vessels for reproduction, and doesn’t take into account that women are sexual [people and] that they have sex regardless of their HIV status.
Why do you believe there’s a lack of material about women living with HIV/AIDS?
LJR: The lack of material addressing trans people [living] with HIV and AIDS also needs to be part of the conversation. I think it’s been unfortunate that it has been such a high hierarchy of who is addressed primarily. When you look at trans women who are HIV-positive, it very much follows how society is set up, [in terms of preferential treatment]. And so, there’s no conversation about [HIV-positive trans women], no prevention campaigns. We’re in tune to [this preferential treatment] in society. That, I think, really says something.
AM: I think in part [it stems from] the masculinity attached to a kind of entitled sexuality. Men are sexual beings. When the AIDS crisis first began, it was absolutely necessary to teach people [in] the queer community about sex, and push into the public all these conversations around practicing safer sex, and sexuality in general.
JW: Women are often sidelined within the HIV movement. When it comes to HIV, feminism really dropped the ball. Especially in North America and the Western world, the epidemic is concentrated in [and around gay men]. It is true that gay men or men who have sex with men have higher rates of HIV [infection] but it doesn’t mean that [HIV] doesn’t exist in other places.
Should women have the AIDS conversation in a different way than men do?
LJR: I think we’re understanding now the effects of the epidemic. We’re seeing what happened when an entire creative class of people was wiped out, and how younger people are making creative work, and also how demographics of queer people are evolving post [AIDS] crisis. I hope that there is more dialogue.
AM: There’s that concern of contamination [if we touch] people who are positive, in general. It gets amplified in relation to gender. As women, if you are already in a position where you don’t really have access to examples of being empowered sexually, then it becomes a problem. Queer and heterosexual positive women don’t have that literacy or that language [that gay men and MSM have] because of misogynistic and social control concerning women and women’s bodies.
JW: To be quite honest, this [is] a bedroom conversation that generally happens behind closed doors. Fuck Positive Women is the public performance of that private conversation. We should be able to have [it] in a way that feels good to us. There’s not one way to [have] it, but silencing more provocative ways is not really fair. We see things with this piece that we don’t generally see—women living with HIV being assertive in their sexuality, taking action and owning it. That’s a big deal.
The material used to create the artwork shown in “Queer Threads” is made of fiber and thread. Textiles. Why is that important?
LJR: There’s a mirror-effect that’s set up with choosing textiles, traditionally marginalized materials, to address marginalized populations—women, people of color, working class people. Because textiles have been marginalized in society. And the more marginalized you are, the less [your issues are] addressed.
AM: I think textiles can work as a device to bring people closer to a different kind of message. It’s something that’s connected to the body, one of our most intimate materials. As a piece of art, that material makes people put their guard down in terms of fear of touching someone with HIV.
JW: There are many layers to it. This is a topic talking about a population against which there is a lot of stigma. [Sometimes people] don’t want to touch or even get close to [people living with HIV]. [And yet they] want to get close to this piece that looks like it should be hanging in [their] grandma’s house.
Where does this kind of art activism leave us in terms of the ongoing fight against AIDS?
LJR: I hope that people will look at contemporary work as a way to really encourage dialogue and activism. We are still so frightened by art about AIDS that we’re still censored. That’s really telling about how powerful art about AIDS is, and that there’s still censorship happening.
AM: I think there’s always a battle. It requires activists to be vigilant and fight for maintaining rights and access.
JW: I do a social practice called No Pants, No Problem through which I create activism banners. A favorite one says, “HIV is not a crime. HIV prosecuting is.” I love the merger between art and activism. Art allows you to push more. Art is about starting dialogue, and also creating pretty things.
What are a few contemporary issues we need to address relative to HIV/AIDS?
LJR: There are a lot of issues about AIDS and HIV that are very much of immediate concern, like criminalization and prevention, the dialogue about women and AIDS, trans issues and AIDS. I hope art will be made to address these issues.
AM: I made a flag, Queer Un-Nation, to carry in an alternative [grass-roots] Pride [event] called Stonewall TO. It is critical about queer politics being taken in the direction of nationalist politics, where [marriage and adoption rights, serving in the military are perceived] as the only and most important rights for queer people, watering down the revolutionary politics, and sexualities.
JW: There’s an automatic assumption that women living with HIV almost always [are straight]. Queer women are not even part of the discussion. Criminalization of HIV, nondisclosure, not being able to talk openly about your sexuality, HIV status, sex for pleasure…it’s detrimental for the HIV movement, and I think it perpetuates patriarchy, heteronormative ideas, and silences women and people living with HIV, and that’s a huge problem. And it’s hard because, globally, over half of the people living with HIV are women. Young women, in particular in some places, make up seventy-five percent of people living with HIV. It’s mind-blowing.
“Queer Threads: Crafting Identity and Community” is running from January 17 – March 16, 2014, at Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art in New York City. Jessica Whitbread and L.J. Roberts will give a talk on Queer Craft and AIDS at the museum on March 13. Visit www.leslielohman.org for more information.
Alina Oswald is a writer, photographer, and the author of Journeys Through Darkness: A Biography of AIDS. Contact her at www.alinaoswald.com.