Art, AIDS & Arbors
Visual artist Hector Toscano talks about HIV and other sources of information, new artwork & life goals
by Alina Oswald
in the middle of a dry forest,
where trees die slowly
the roots seem without life,
on the branches of the trees do not appear leaves
luckily the morning dew manages to flourish on a tree, then
spread to another and so gradually the dry forest is transformed into pure life
still a large part of the forest is dry,
but with the help of everyone we will give life to the whole planet.
en medio de un bosque seco,
donde los árboles mueren lentamente
las raices se ven sin vidas,
de las ramas de los árboles no aparecen hojas
por suerte el rocio de la mañana logra florecer a un árbol, para luego
contagiar a otro y asi de a poco el bosque seco se transforma en vida pura
todavía hay una gran parte del bosque que esta seco,
pero con la ayuda de cada uno vamos a dar vida a todo el planeta.
Thus starts (loosely translated) one of Hector Toscano’s poems, “Arbol” (which means “Tree”). The idea that, in the end, life prevails and transcends most of his work, as created in various art forms—painting, photography, and poetry—that the Argentinean artist uses to communicate with the world. It also allows others a unique glimpse into the artist’s world.
“I always try to write down my feelings or thoughts that made me create the work,” Toscano explains. His interest in writing started when he was in high school and won a prize for an essay about a gay man living with HIV—something that, at that time, many referred to as “pink plague” or “gay cancer.” Toscano adds, “I dared to write the story [when I was] in public school. Now that I think about it, I’ve always liked to be rebellious and raise my voice regarding subjects that might make people uncomfortable.” And nowadays, “rebellious” might just be the one word to describe Toscano’s artwork.
Hector Toscano, whose work A&U has featured before, in the July 2013 issue, is an artist of many talents. Exhibited around the world, his artwork pieces together a somewhat atypical portrait of life, and HIV as part of that life, the artist’s life in particular. Daring, oftentimes unfiltered, offering the naked truth (in an exotic, artistic way, that is) about living with HIV, while exuding that particular kind of passion often associated with Latino culture, Toscano’s art does come in different forms and uses different languages, if art forms could be considered languages, to speak to people around the world, and address a global community which mirrors the global reach of the pandemic. Not only that, but Toscano’s art takes us on a rollercoaster of emotions, from sorrow to hope, on a journey from darkness to light, showing the possibility of a better and brighter future.
Toscano was introduced to the art world when in school, during a class trip to an art museum. “I found it amazing,” the artist says, recalling the experience. And so, he became interested in learning more about all those works of art and the artists who had created them. He also hoped that one day he’d become an artist, himself.
As a young boy, Toscano learned to consider creating art not only as a possible future life dream, but also as a pillar to lean on in everyday life. “My father died when I was twelve,” the artist shares with me, “and from there on, I had to make my way alone, without the [support of the] rest of my family.” And so art became a constant in his life. Creating art became “a means to escape from my family or from school where the boys would tease me for being gay.”
He began his journey into becoming a visual artist by studying drawing and painting. Then, sometime during his teen years, he bought his first camera, and took photography courses while at his university’s school of architecture. That’s because, to this day, he believes that, in order to be an artist, one has to try his or her hand at different forms of art. Today he favors photography and painting. Most recently he has returned his attention to drawing.
Also, Toscano attributes his interest in self-portraits to his experiences as a young, introverted boy, “afraid of socializing with people,” as he describes it. “In contrast, I feel strongly about showing my feelings through pictures of myself. Self-portraits,” he says, “are photos through which one can create their own world, where [they] can be with their own ghosts, with their own demons, but through which one can also see the light.” He adds, “I believe in art as a healing tool of any kind of physical or emotional ailment. I also believe that every artist should know how to make a good self-portrait, because it is a way to understand life.”
Toscano’s sources of inspiration traverse time, space, and also emotions. They range from extreme situations he’s lived through during his younger years, to the shadows and light defining living in solitude. He has also found inspiration in other artists—opera singers like Maria Callas; photographers like Horacio Coppola, who has inspired Toscano since the artist was an eighteen-year-old living, as he does now, in Buenos Aires; and also Robert Mapplethorpe [A&U, July 2016].
Buenos Aires is another source of inspiration, maybe a different kind of inspiration. The city defines “different economic situations of a country in constant change and where nothing ever is stable,” Toscano explains. “I must create art beyond the socioeconomic problems which cross the country.” He adds, “On the other hand, luckily, Buenos Aires remains a city where you can still walk the streets, and look people in the eye and try to discover their stories, where you can imagine and dream.”
And speaking of dreams, Toscano, who is also a Visual AIDS artist, reflects on the possibilities of showing his HIV-inspired work not only as he does through Visual AIDS (a place he hopes to visit in person, one day), but also in venues in his own country. In general, “it is very difficult to gain entrance to these important places [to show your work],” he says. He was lucky to be able to show some of his work in Buenos Aires, at the Centro Cultural Recoleta (the Recoleta Cultural Center), but much more is needed. Impressed by the support Visual AIDS offers artists, he dreams that one day there will be a venue such as Visual AIDS in Argentina, or, as he calls it, “we need a Visual AIDS at this latitude.”
Throughout the years, Toscano has not stopped chasing his dream and creating his art. Aside from lately returning to drawing, he also bought a new camera, which allowed him to delve more into photography. “At the beginning of the year I started a project called Project Skies, where once a day I take a picture of [the sky, of heaven].” He explains that heaven is wherever we are, and projects like Project Skies allow him to rediscover that heaven, to look beyond the “city of cement” and reconnect with nature and its beauty. As with his self-portraits, this new project helps him reconnect with his inner self, and also it helps him heal.
Looking at Toscano’s vast body of work, one takes that first step inside the artist’s world—an unusual, unconventional, unique universe offering an unexpected sight of art and HIV as a source of inspiration for that art. Some works stand out more than others.
Cubo (Cube) resembles a Rubik’s Cube and shows newly HIV-diagnosed individuals how to “arm” themselves and perhaps find the right words to fight the virus and society’s skewed views on the virus. “This cube forms the word ‘HIV’ but also the word ‘Life.’” Toscano explains, “because my works [display] the dark side of life, but also the journey all the way from darkness to light, which light represents life.”
Pastillas (Pills) takes on the artist’s own relationship with the pills that keep his HIV at bay, and him alive. From the time of his HIV diagnosis, in 1994, until recently, his struggle with taking pills—up to thirty pills a day, in the old days—has been an ongoing one. This particular work reflects “a bit of that fight. It [shows] a way to get rid of the fear and [make peace] with [taking the] pills.” He adds, “I think a lot about the journey that a little pill takes once it enters my body.”
Fragmentos (Fragments) reflects some of Toscano’s newer artistic interests. “I am very interested in Polaroid photography now. Here [in Argentina] the Polaroid paper is very expensive, but I think it’s a great way to show smaller size work.” As an art piece, Fragmentos can be seen as one single artwork or each fragment could be considered a work of art in itself. Fragmentos deals with the “fragmentation of life when it comes to emotions, fears, a broken heart,” offering the possibility to put together all these fragments and make one a whole person, yet again.
Fantasmas (Ghosts) was created “at one point in my life where I was not in good health,” Toscano says. It was nothing serious, but the experience that ultimately inspired this artwork made him think about how fragile he was, as we all are as human beings, and brought back the fears of getting sick and getting close to death. On the other hand, even if it might seem a paradox, “[Death] is something I’ve always thought of, not as something negative, but quite the opposite, because I think that death is part of life.”
Arbol (Tree) is an art installation showing the medications as a source of wisdom and life that, in turn, bears fruit. The pills, themselves, could be interpreted as the “forbidden fruit.”
It is difficult for Toscano to choose a favorite art piece. “I think the Tree installation may be the one I like,” he adds. It all started as an idea, which came to him while he watched a plant slowly dying in his house. “I could [witness] the passage of time [while watching] the death of the plant, and [thought of] life that follows death.” The poem with the same name, “Arbol,” reiterates this idea and that of death making room for new life and new beginnings.
Hector Toscano continues to create and show his work. He plans to start an arts group and call it Disease and Creation, “where a root of some unhealthy situation triggers a process of creation and healing.” With this idea, he follows in the footsteps of great artists who have created similar art over the years, because the seeds of many great works of art can always be found in some dark corner of life, an illness or ailment.
Directly addressing those newly diagnosed with HIV, Toscano recalls his own feelings when he was told that he had contracted the virus, which virus, over time, has become an ongoing source of inspiration for his art: “I thought of all the tears that went through my eyes, I thought of all the joys and achievements, of everything that I could not do [anymore]. But I can say that I feel whole when I can do my work. My art is the only way I know to follow.”
Alina Oswald is Arts Editor of A&U.