Kwan’s Song & the Allure of Immortality
by Sean Black
“He has [CLAP!] kept me alive,” describes native New Yorker and multidisciplinary artist Kia Labeija during our interview over Skype about the doctor who has cared for her for over twenty years, almost all of her young life. The punctuation declared by the impressive audible clap of her hands is theatrical and sincere, a fitting introduction of the artist herself.
Diagnosed with HIV in 1993, the same year as her mother Kwan, dancer turned activist for the rights of people living with HIV/AIDS until her death in 2004, Kia Michelle Benbow (aka Kia Labeija) expresses herself through art while creatively following in her beloved mother’s footsteps.
“After she found out [her positive status] she became a really big AIDS activist. She traveled the world, going to conferences and talking to people openly because she represented a population perceived to be very unlikely to catch the virus. She was a straight female of Asian and Native American descent.”
Hoping to show another face of HIV/ AIDS and to serve a community and culture of which she was a part, Kwan Bennett became an active member of the board of APICHA. Named Asian and Pacific Islander Coalition on HIV/AIDS at that time, APICHA was founded in 1989 to address the unmet needs of Asians and Pacific Islanders living in New York City. The non-profit organization was originally focused on disaggregating “Asians and Pacific Islanders” and “Native Americans” from an “Other” category in HIV/AIDS surveillance data. Its successful advocacy opened the doors to government and private funding streams that have led to the establishment of an LGBT clinic, an STI clinic, and resources that provide hepatitis screening, immunization and treatment, among other accomplishments. In 2011, APICHA launched its Trans Health Clinic to address the unique healthcare and wellness needs of transgender, gender variant, gender nonconforming, and gender queer people of color.
Drawing from loss and the early memories of her mother, as well as the challenges of living with HIV herself, Kia Labeija offers, in her enigmatic self-portraits showcased in this month’s Gallery, glimpses of a contemplative yet transformed identity that resolves the void of her mother and the issues surrounding the disclosure of her own positive status as a young, attractive, and sexually active female. While the issues of her photographs may at first glance seem more easily relatable to other young women of college age pining for the normalcy of womanhood, they speak more directly to those who have walked in her shoes. Embedded with clues about having lost her mother at the age of fourteen to AIDS and growing up as HIV-positive, Kia’s intense presence in her photographs underscore the significance of what may not be readily apparent; her deep and necessary healing process with the promise to never forget. Beyond voyeuristic representations of physicality, desire, personal belongings and time, these portals on paper or digital display are earmarked as sacred space for a daughter to mourn the loss of her mother while making impact in the role of artist educator.
“I’ve come to this realization that part of the work that I want to do is to take moments of sadness and moments of disability and to create something more beautiful from them,” shares Kia about the work for which she is becoming notably recognized.
Her first series, “24,” named for her age, just this past year, as well as the number of years she’s inhabited the same apartment space, is comprised of three poignant images: In My Room, Mourning Sickness, and Kia and Mommy. The series was featured for the first time as part of Visual AIDS’ “Ephemera as Evidence” show [Gallery, July 2014].
[dropcap]“I[/dropcap]n My Room was the first image that sparked my series “24”; it is a portrait of a positive body of twenty-four-years of age (mine) in a room, which I have lived in for twenty-four years. There are elements of performance that exist in this image, but it is mostly about space, my home,” she shares. “My work gives a voice to issues that I think need to be talked about. I am a representation of a forgotten people—children living with HIV. We have always been left out of the history of AIDS, and now decades later we are still here.”
Her images are cathartic for herself as well. “I’ve had difficulties with being super honest about things,” openly admits Kia. “I have always been like that, especially when dealing with my own positive status. I like to project that I am happy and that everything’s great.” She adds: “The first step of healing is for someone to bear witness and I think I was ready to start talking about all of this stuff.”
[pull_quote_center]“I wanted something that conveys my life, but in a fantasy version. [/pull_quote_center]A second image, Mourning Sickness, plays with words over both the grief of her mother’s untimely passing in her life, as well as reliving her own unpleasant experience as a young teenager vomiting each morning before high school from the medications she was prescribed to save her life. Says Kia, “I wanted something that conveys my life, but in a fantasy version. If I was in that bathroom [again] at fifteen, laying next to that toilet and could close my eyes and think of that moment in a more beautiful way—to take me out of all of that sadness then this is what I would want it to look like. These images are really about me beginning to take the steps to talk about my experiences.”
[dropcap]I[/dropcap]mages Snow and Red Disco speak directly to her concepts of identity. Snow, she feels, is a pretty portrait of herself. “I have felt [self-conscious] with a lot of issues around ‘beauty’ as a positive person, so this image for me makes me feel very beautiful, glamorous, raw.”
With Red Disco, she uses the color to reference her positive status and a party space. “So, Red Disco is about this idea that I have been exploring about ‘masking and unmasking’; masking as a platform for freedom and liberation, and unmasking as a technique for self-realization and healing. This piece is a commentary on my own mask—the one I live under (Kia Labeija, a self-made superstar who has been able to speak freely about her life, trauma and positive status under her created identity). It is in dialogue with Andy Warhol’s creation of the superstar as well as his iconic prints of—Icons. I have learned that Icon status is truly a way to beat death, to become immortal. To become an ‘Icon’ is to live forever, to always be relevant, to live through the words, theories, ideas and performances that you leave on this earth when you pass.” Kia grew up in New York City’s Midtown district Hell’s Kitchen and is a member of the Iconic House of Labeija, a stage for her love of performance, dance and dress-up. Her demeanor brightens instantly when she recalls a spiritual turning point in her life.
“I love to tell this story because it is so great. I remember I was a freshman in college and I needed a job so so bad. I was outside of a church and I was praying, ‘God please send me a job, I really need a job,’” she humbly pleaded. Days later, she recalls, Kia got on a train and ran into a friend from high school who was managing shifts at Webster Hall, one of the biggest nightclubs in the city. Kia shared the same request as she had with God, and her friend hired her on the spot, commencing what would become much more than a part-time employment gig. Perhaps God was listening. As the venue was hosting a circus-themed party on the night that she started, she was welcomed into the colorful world of the avante garde and the queer, with aerialists, drag artists and extravagant people in big costumes, Kia had soon bonded with one of the drag artists and was introduced into a family and a support group that she’d been searching for.
They’d meet up after late night shifts at the Venus diner in Chelsea, a mere two blocks from her home. “Every night we fuckin’ vogued out, It was amazing and just so very fun. After joining my first house, ‘the house of De La Blanca’ that is when I began going out and working on my voguing in a weekly practice and in nightlife. My friend adopted me because that is how it works in the ballroom community. She said, ‘I am your gay mother,’ and proceeded to teach me everything she knew—she showed me the ropes. She then joined the House of Labeija and then I joined. If I hadn’t been praying at that church for a job that day I would have never worked at Webster Hall and met this person who brought me into this world that brings me so much happiness.”
“There were so many Labeijas, but a lot of them had passed [like famed founder Pepper Labeija] especially in that period of the eighties—a lot of those people who were in [the documentary] Paris Is Burning are all gone because of the AIDS crisis; it wiped people out,” she explains. “But now the house is active again and I love my house and the scene because of performance, community and dress up. I stress community because it is a social and cultural phenomenon (the ballroom scene/nightlife). Ballroom has allowed me to make my own name in art and has allowed me a voice to start talking about things and my own experiences with AIDS and HIV.”
Lauded by the HIV media for her advocacy, Kia is a member artist of Visual AIDS and a cofounder of the artists’ collective #GrenAIDS aimed at exposing youth to art and popular culture. She is an alumnus of the Juilliard School and the Ailey School, where she trained in both music and dance, and is currently enrolled at The New School University. About continuing the work of her late mother raising awareness surrounding HIV/AIDS specifically in relation to youth by educating, and creating new conversations through her artist practices, she shares, “I have a lot of work yet to do. I have a lot of things I want to show.”
To see more of Kia Labeija’s work, log on to www. goodnight-trafficcity.com. The next appearance of the series “24” is in Jonathan Katz and Rock Hushka’s “Art, AIDS, America” show, opening in June 2015 at MOCA in Los Angeles and then traveling for two years.
For more information about APICHA log on to www.apicha.org.
Sean Black is a Senior Editor of A&U.