White Walls
Protest over “Art AIDS America” sparks dialogue about African-American inclusion in the art world
by Larry Buhl

Iconic Works 1, one of Chris Jordan’s artistic responses to “Art AIDS America”
Iconic Works 1, one of Chris Jordan’s artistic responses to “Art AIDS America”

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n announcing the opening of “Art AIDS America” last year, co-curators Rock Hushka and Jonathan Katz [A&U, August 2015] had promised the exhibit would “explore the whole spectrum of artistic responses to AIDS.”

But less than two months into the exhibit, a group of activists proclaimed that the spectrum was inexplicably and inexcusably white.

Activists with the Tacoma Action Collective took issue with the fact that only four of the 107 artists in exhibition were Black. They said it was a lopsided representation of the racial demographics of the HIV/AIDS crisis when Black Americans now represent forty percent of the death toll from AIDS and Black Americans under twenty-four constitute fifty-seven percent of new HIV diagnoses.

In a press release, TAC said “Art AIDS America” “largely displays HIV as a white gay crisis from the 80’s.”

On December 17, a group of TAC protesters staged a thirty-person “die-in” in the Tacoma Art Museum in protest, mourning, they said, more than 700,000 African Americans who were or are affected by HIV/AIDS, as well as what they called a blatant erasure and lack of Black representation within the exhibit.

TAC launched #StopErasingBlackPeople and made three demands of TAM: to add more Black artists to the exhibition, add more Black staff throughout all levels of TAM staff and boards, and a “retraining” in Undoing Institutional Racism, a workshop sponsored by the People’s Institute, based in New Orleans.

“Art AIDS America” co-curator Rock Hushka told A&U that initially he was dismayed and depressed by the protest, but soon understood it would be a learning opportunity for TAM and the entire art world.

“After a few days of feeling sorry for myself I started to remember why I became interested in art in the eighties, that is art to make positive change,” Hushka said.

“It has not been fun. It’s been a personal challenge. But it’s good to have a kick in your pants every once in a while. It helps us meet our mission of connecting people through art and reinvigorate our community engagement work.”

Hushka added that he was glad to be part of a necessary ongoing discussion to be had about black erasure in the arts and how HIV/AIDS in Black communities are perceived and handled in America.

From damage control to opportunity
By the time the Tacoma leg of the tour closed, TAM had publicly committed to meeting all three demands of the TAC protesters, including the addition of more Black artists.

Hushka met with leaders of the African-American community and with TAC soon after the controversy reached his attention, he says. “We clarified outcomes they wanted to see and shared information about our ongoing efforts on equity and information and increased transparency with the community.”

Hushka and co-creator Katz also worked with exhibition partners in Kennisaw, Georgia, and the Bronx, and, most recently, Chicago, to add works that “responded to their community needs and points of concern.”

TAM also commissioned Black writer, artist, and archivist Sur Rodney Sur to write a thought piece about the history of African-American participation in the arts, which is now on the TAM website.

Hushka also completed a workshop about understanding racism and how structural racism in society oppresses African American communities and said that TAM’s senior management team has agreed to complete the workshop in the summer.

Regarding the hiring of more Black employees Hushka says the museum is bound by a few legal issues, including the prohibition from the state of Washington to ask the race of applicants. But he says that the board of trustees are “redoubling their efforts on broadening diversity” on board and staff and policies to barriers for people of color working there.

“We started this work years ago. We agreed to be more transparent about these efforts and the resources we’ve invested.”

Not everyone was satisfied with TAM’s efforts, most notably, Kia Labeija [A&U, April 2015], one of the four Black artists in the original installation of “Art AIDS America.”

Labeija, a photographer, has three pieces in “Art AIDS America” under the title “Twenty-four” that deal with her personal experiences growing up with HIV and an HIV-positive mother: Morning Sickness, which takes place in her bathroom; In My Room, which is about growing up after losing her mother and having a room as a safe haven; Kia and Mommy, a portrait her holding a portrait of her mother, who died in 2004 when Kia was fourteen. Her self-portraits are being used in promotional materials for the exhibition.

Labeija tells A&U that, although she’s proud to be part of the show, she feels like her inclusion was a placeholder to represent people like her.

“If I weren’t in the show there would be no representation of African-American women with HIV who were born positive. And that’s sad. I’m also the only female artist living with HIV who’s part of the show. I play all these roles. But I’m not the only one out there. I couldn’t believe that in ten years they spent [curating the show] they could only find me.”

Tacoma Action Collective pamphlet (front)
Tacoma Action Collective pamphlet (front)
Tacoma Action Collective pamphlet (back)
Tacoma Action Collective pamphlet (back)

Labeija, who detailed her negative experience working with Hushka in an earlier Facebook post in which she supported TAC’s actions, admitted to A&U that her issues with Hushka are as much personal as about the content of the show. She recounted missed calls, emails not returned, contracts not sent, and even what she considered mistakes in the labels of her work.

It was what Labeija called “unbelievable” things Hushka said about her in an interview in the Tacoma-based publication Post Defiance that fully soured her working relationship with him. On January 18, Labeija posted a statement on Facebook that opened with “Dear Art not AIDS America, your white walls can kiss my black ass,” and said she acknowledged but didn’t accept a formal apology she received from Hushka.

Hushka told A&U that he wouldn’t address Labeija’s accusations, except to say that he supports her freedom of speech and that he considers her “an amazing artist” and expects that she will have a “dazzling” career.

TAC appeared to be satisfied with Hushka’s and TAM’s response to their demands, at least as of January. A joint press release on January 7 recounted the productive meetings that TAM had with TAC protesters, including artist/activist Chris Jordan, and that in a December 30th meeting, TAM’s senior staff, executive director, and board president, as well as Jordan and TAC reached agreement on actions TAC and TAM would undertake together “to address the number of Black artists represented in the exhibition ‘Art AIDS America’ and the broader challenges of inclusion in museums.”

More recently, TAC’s leader Chris Jordan has found interactions with TAM to be a mixed bag.

In an email he sent to me in May, Jordan said that, “it feels like [TAC] are jumping through hoops for PR and don’t have the institutional gumption to grapple with change in a productive way.” He went on to say that the latest meetings with the TAM Director Stephanie Stebich have been “condescending and uncomfortable.”

Jordan said he was also concerned about the ability of TAM’s contemporary curator for an upcoming exhibit titled “30 Americans.” Jordan wrote that “30 Americans” is a sensitive body of work touching on generations of racial trauma and violence experienced by Black Americans, and a project that he believes has been “mishandled” at other art institutions.

“Based on their lead contemporary curator’s track record of ineffectively working with Black advisors

TAC's action at Tacoma Art Museum. Photo by Saiyare Rafaei
TAC’s action at Tacoma Art Museum. Photo by Saiyare Rafael

on a project, as evidenced by the index of independently published statements we have from Black artists and consultants on ‘Art AIDS America’ whose direct recommendations were ignored and sidelined, he’s clearly not the right choice to lead a project like this or the accompanying conversations,” Jordan wrote.

TAC is recommending that TAM hire a guest curator with experience and qualification specifically engaging with African-American art history as well as “good experience engaging and with Black voices from an advisory and or community standpoint.”

The dialogue between TAC and TAM will continue, both organizations say.

Art AIDS America 2.0
When “Art AIDS America” opened at the Zuckerman Museum of Art (ZMA) at Kennesaw State University outside Atlanta on February 20 there was an expanded roster of artists, with the additions fully integrated but labeled slightly differently to, TAM says, highlight the critique that the museum hopes will be carried forth in each venue.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution review of the show said it was debatable whether the inclusion of certain Black artists furthered the aims of the show but that “the responsiveness of the museum does prove art’s status as a living, breathing organism rather than a moribund collection of stuff. Under smart curation, it morphs and changes and responds to the world it occupies.”

Chris Jordan says that some of the additions to the show included work that was “rich, and layered and complex and nuanced.”

“It appeared that they [the curators] had done some digging,” Jordan said. “The scary part was noticing among the additions, the trend in legacy of Black artists who died unrecognized, and undervalued.”

Hushka tells A&U that the additions have made “Art AIDS America” a more inclusive show, but that it retains the original mission to be “a groundbreaking rethinking of American art and how HIV/AIDS is at the heart of American creativity.”

The bigger picture
Nayand Blake, a multiracial Black-identifying artist whose work, Every Twelve Minutes, is featured in “Art AIDS America,” tells A&U that the TAC protests were valid, but that the issue of black exclusion is much bigger than the exhibition or TAM.

“It’s about an art world mired in prejudice,” he says.

Labeija, and now Hushka, would agree.

“Here’s what messes with my head,” Labeija says. “I can take the subway and see ads with two gay Black men discussing safer sex and HIV. We can be in bus stops, we can be in subway stations but we can’t be in art institutions. That makes no sense to me. It’s like saying ‘you can be in the ghetto but you don’t belong with us.’”

Hushka suggests that TAC’s protest did the art world and the Tacoma Art Museum a huge favor by opening eyes to the lack of representation of people of color in the mainstream art world.

“I hope we [TAM] can use this opening to become a national model of diversity and equity and inclusion. These issues need to be addressed by museums and community partners. The moment we take our eye off the ball is the moment we’ve failed.”

He says he expects the conversation to continue long after “Art AIDS America” closes next year. “What we don’t want to have happen is to sweep the issues under the rug. We want to have frank conversations about barriers in the museum industry for people of color.”


 

“Art AIDS America” runs from July 13 to September 25 at the Bronx Museum in New York, and opens at the Alphawood Foundation in Chicago December 1. For more information about Tacoma Action Collective, log on to: https://www.facebook.com/TacomaActionCollective/.


 

Larry Buhl is regular contributor to A&U.