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Lifting the Veil

Posted on January 21, 2011 by in Gallery

A New Exhibit Proves It Takes at Least Two to Play Hide and Seek
by Chael Needle

David Wojnarowicz, A Fire In My Belly (Film In Progress), 1986–87, Super 8mm film, black and white & color, silent, TRT: 00:13:06/A Fire In My Belly Excerpt, 1986–87, Super 8mm film, black and white & color, silent, TRT: 00:07:00. Courtesy of The Estate of David Wojnarowicz and P.P.O.W. Gallery, New York, and The Fales Library and Special Collections/New York University

There’s a danger that “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” currently running at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., will become known as the exhibition whose hosting institution, the Smithsonian, censored a work by an artist who has come to have a major influence on how we understand AIDS. This happened on the eve of World AIDS Day. And that work is a four-minute video excerpt of David Wojnarowicz’s A Fire in My Belly, a dark fantasia made in response to the death from AIDS-related complications of the artist’s lover, Peter Hujar, and out of his own response to living with AIDS.

The Secretary of the Smithsonian, G. Wayne Clough, chose to remove the optionally accessed video because of complaints—some from people who had contacted the institution, some from members of Congress—that a depiction of a crucifix on the ground with ants walking on it was anti-Christian. The exhibition was censored without the input of one of its curators, Jonathan D. Katz, director, visual studies doctoral program, SUNY Buffalo, and against the objections of its other, David C. Ward, historian, National Portrait Gallery.

The modus operandi of religious conservatives to reduce everything to one inalterable meaning is a hopelessly naïve tactic, especially in this context, for the artwork assembled for the exhibition does the opposite of reduce—the 105 works expand, expand, expand. They contain multitudes, to paraphrase Walt Whitman, who serves as a kind of grand marshall of “Hide/Seek” through the inclusion of his poetry and photographic portraits taken by Thomas Eakins and Matthew Brady. The exhibition seeks to “follow Walt Whitman in lifting the veil on what has been hidden in the discussion of American art history,” as the program notes state. What’s been hidden is “the gay and lesbian presence in American art,” as Ward stated on the PBS News Hour, adding that another aim is to explore how canonical works, such as those by John Singer Sargent, George Platt Lynes, Georgia O’Keefe, Andy Warhol, and Romaine Brooks, among other heavy hitters, have been “only partially interpreted.”

The exhibition seeks to expand the range of possible critical and affective responses to difference and desire by artists and audiences of all walks. It seeks to expand the meaning of portraiture by including abstract work by Marsden Hartley and Robert Rauschenberg. And it seeks to expand our knowledge of how oppressive binaries such as straight/queer were negotiated by different artists and subjects.

The exhibition also expands the conventional timeline of LGBTQ art history. Starting with “Before Difference,” which gestures toward a time before the medicalized labeling of desire by nineteenth and early twentieth century sexologists really took hold, the exhibition moves through the urbanite camoflauging of “Modernism,” the burgeoning subculture identities of “The 1930s and After,” the “Consensus and Conflict” of the conservative 1950s, the coming-out narratives and civil-rights actions of “Stonewall and After,” the politics and pain of “AIDS,” and the postmodern move beyond mourning in “New Beginnings.”

Katz is prepping to mount his latest exhibition, “Art/AIDS/America.” He describes it as an “attempt to change the discourse on AIDS, which has tended to understand art about AIDS as a kind of self-contained bubble, tangential to the [corpus] of American art history. That approach seriously misunderstands the import of AIDS and does a real disservice to a profound and painful sociohistorical moment.” He continues: “What AIDS did was to take that postmodernist dominant discourse and shift it radically. And it’s not just artists with AIDS that did that; it really changed what we understood art to deliver in America. The whole poetic postmodernism—a postmodernism that says something, but says it poetically rather than [as] flat-out agitprop—that we now see as the mainstream of American art was born there.”

Chael Needle: How did you and co-curator David C. Ward come to decide on portraiture?
Jonathan D. Katz:
I had been trying to do a broad-based LGBTQ history and art show for quite a while

Janet Flanner, Berenice Abbott, 1927, photographic print, image/sheet: 24.1 by 18.7 centimeters (9 1/2 by 7 3/8 inches), matte: 45.7 by 35.6 centimeters (18 by 14 inches). Prints and Photgraphs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. © Berenice Abbott/Commerce Graphics Ltd., Inc.

and kept having doors slammed in my face. The National Portrait Gallery, and especially David Ward, seemed interested, so as a consequence portraiture became its focus.

Through the process did you find that portraiture more than other genres lent itself to the ideas you were interested in?
No…I mean, I would have been able to include work that I did not include because of the portraiture rubric had it been at a different kind of institution, but, with that said, we have made a portraiture exhibition capacious enough to carry some of the biggest things I wanted to explicate.

Many of the portraits seem to establish a conversation between artist and subject that highlights difference and desire—Janet Flanner’s portrait by Berenice Abbott or James Baldwin’s portrait by Beauford Delaney. Is there something about queer portraiture that is particularly collaborative?
When one engages in the prospect of making visible something that socially speaking was often rather aggressively camouflaged, it becomes necessary to make the project collaborative.

Portraiture is a form of combat between the sitter and the portraitist. The portraitist is after one thing; the sitter is after another, very often. Yet when it comes to this question I think both sides need to negotiate a common ground.

What I found remarkable about that Flanner image, for example, was the careful thinking-through at a moment when there was no historical precedent for how to signify lesbianism in a way that did not simply appeal to the heterosexual male gaze. To give it form. And it also evaded the problem that governed so many representations of women together which is that we tend to naturalize and make female intimacy sexual.

So that was intentional—the move away from the conventional erotic representations?
Absolutely. On the one hand, the historical forms of lesbian representation had primarily been intended to excite men. The other option was just to show female intimacy, without necessarily erotic activity. [The women in these representations] would be read simply as their family or their friends. So, how then does one suggest, specifically, a lesbian identity? Abbott took that as her task and in concert with Flanner solved it brilliantly.

Also, in order to code something you have to bank on the fact that there’s somewhere out there who can decode it.
That’s a wonderful point because what it begins to suggest is the advent of an identity category not only in the sitter but among the audience.

That is one thing we tried to communicate—the birth of the binary of queer and straight.

Were there any challenges when you reached the “AIDS” section?
There were several challenges. First, how do you avoid a teleology that makes AIDS somehow unintentionally the necessary end of the process that we developed historically all the way through? The other problem is, how do you negotiate the extremely painful, extremely raw emotional power of these works, which were propelled by an imperative that other works were not, such that they do not totally swamp the show? Ultimately what we decided to do was to more or less think of AIDS historically, which is to say give it the percentage of wall space that it occupied historically within the full span of the 120 years of the exhibition.

Obviously artists responding to AIDS weren’t thinking along the lines necessarily of a Jasper Johns, who was participating in an artistic conversation among other things; their first intention was not to enter the canon or make a splash.
Well, in fact one of the things that we’re trying to suggest rather subtly in this, and which is going to be the main focus of “Art/AIDS/America,” is that at this moment historically, when postmodernism ruled the roost in the American art world and the [starting] assumption was, as Barthes put it, “the death of the author,” that artists were only one part of the signifying machinery and that audiences were the much more significant part, what do you do with the “death of the author” when authors actually start to die? And how can you, while acknowledging the complexity of that relationship, nonetheless say something definitive?

Especially when there are people out there who are trying to empty signs of the content that they don’t like.
Absolutely. And mind you not only in terms of the political Neanderthals but also within the art world itself, [a world] which at this moment was very much interested in exploring the mechanisms of signification ahead of what was signified itself. October Magazine is a classic example of that.

What’s your sense of the censorship of Wojnarowicz’s A Fire in My Belly—is it a reinvigoration of the culture wars or is it a last, desperate gasp?
In my brighter moments, I think dinosaurs squawk before they become extinct, and that this may be the squawking

Unfinished Painting, Keith Haring, 1989, acrylic on canvas, 100 by 100 centimeters (39 3/8 by 39 3/8 inches). Katia Perlstein, Brussels © Keith Haring Foundation

moment. But I also think there’s a very cynical calculation on the part of the Right here. I have no doubt that the thirty days between the mounting of the exhibition and its attack was being used strategically by our enemies. I wouldn’t be surprised if they focus-grouped forms of attack and tried to find a handle. Perversely, there’s actually something progressive about this particular red herring of religion, which suggests that the old politics of “There’s a queer—kill it!” is a politics of diminishing return and that they had to invent a new handle to attack the exhibition. That said, I have no doubt that they’re trying to seek a culture war, and they’re trying to seek a culture war because the Right has continuously fed off of the debris produced in such wars. And old habits die hard.

I’m hoping, and in this I’m in a profoundly different position than—to my mind, the shortsighted understanding of the Secretary of the Smithsonian—that the Right makes the miscalculation of attacking the Smithsonian. Anybody who stands on the Mall and looks at that constellation of majestic museums immediately recognizes its centrality to the construction of American culture. It may very well be that attacking that institution is the only thing that will get the vast bulk of Americans roused enough to say, “Wait a minute, we believe in government support for arts and culture.”

“Hide/Seek” will run through February 13, 2011, at the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. View A Fire in My Belly on YouTube and many other on-line sites. A catalogue is available for purchase through the Smithsonian and booksellers such as Amazon.com.

Chael Needle is Managing Editor of A&U.

January 2011

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  • http://www.real-stories-gallery.org Rachel Chapple

    “The Portraiture of Our Lives,” by Rachel Chapple, PhD (anthropologist; Founder, Real Stories Gallery)

    Smithsonian Board of Regent’s Chair, Patty Stonesifer: We don’t want curators or directors or others to think that ‘above all, avoid controversy.’”

    The REAL CONTROVERSY here is that adults, who hold tremendous power to shape perceptions within our expanding international social and professional communities, are turning their backs on millions of men, women, adolescents and children experiencing appalling isolation and physical pain. And they are justifying their actions of censorship, by placing their highly visible conversation about Mr Wojnarowicz’s art work within a protective theoretical framework that posits: what art works message and how they are read is multiple and complex, and therefore to act fairly and justly all views should be acknowledged in some sort of conceptual egalitarian fashion. Given the very distinct filters of censorship and funding that determine and maintain the Smithsonian Institution, this is very mean spirited and irresponsible behaviour. It instantly, just like that, stamps on humanities compassion and common sense, and allows for unspeakable human rights abuses taking place as a direct result of socially and culturally constructed thoughts and actions, to continue unchallenged by an influential outfit.

    One man, Mr Wojnarowicz, has courageously spoken as loudly and as clearly as he was able, and in the only way he knew how – through the extraordinarily powerful medium of visual art. His art work reflects the portraiture of our lives and calls to our small voice of conscience. It compels us to stand up and to speak clearly, so we may dispel wrong doing and protect the lives of innocent people. If that is not good art, I have no idea what is.

    I believe today work that reflects the portraiture of our lives and calls to humanity to respond with common sense and compassion, should be rescued from the embrace of guardians who are not thinking clearly and/or feel unnerved. From a home, in this case the Smithsonian, in which the Regents have chosen not to take a deep breath and seize the opportunity, afforded them by Mr Wojnarowicz’s art piece, to speak out and offer protection to a remarkable voice raising awareness of the plight of millions of human beings TODAY. The Smithsonian has the power to encourage a moment of reflection, born through imagination and empathy, on who we are and who we would like to be. I am left feeling saddened and simultaneously relieved that Mr Wojnarwicz’s art piece has been rescued from such an abusive home environment.

    The conversations surrounding the Smithsonian Institute’s censorship of David’s work, serves as a warning and wake-up call to contemporary artists. It demands for them to be silent and thereby support the Smithsonian’s leadership. Or, to reflect with the empathy of an artist on the tension they may experience between their individual desire for their art work to be exhibited in a prestigious and influential cultural house of art, and that of their small voice of conscience calling to them to do something to protect a colleague’s work. I believe if artists come together they will gain strength by doing what artists have historically always done so well – CREATE and reflect and influence. I believe if artists harness their powerful imaginations, their nerve and their ability to realize something astonishing out of extremely limited resources, they will enable a space, a home (perhaps employing today’s technologies), to protect highly creative work reflecting the portraiture of our lives. And, so doing, afford such work the respect and dignity it deserves. It appears what we perceive and how we behave when confronted with an art work, so often reflects what we perceive and how we behave towards another human being…

    http://www.real-stories-gallery.org/content/portraiture-our-lives-memory-david-wojnarowicz-tim-barrus

  • http://www.real-stories-gallery.org Rachel Chapple

    On January 31, 2011 the SMITHSONIAN Institution’s Board of Regents met to discuss the fall out from the censorship controversy. “In the absence of actual error, changes to exhibitions should not be made once an exhibition opens without meaningful consultation with the curator, director, Secretary, and the leadership of the Board of Regents.” These two words ‘absence’ and ‘without’ do not inspire confidence that the Board of Regents have understood the urgency being flagged by Mr Wojnarowicz and his colleagues…

    ——————————-

    From: Rachel Chapple, PhD, (Anthropologist, Founder of Real Stories Gallery)

    To: Shirley Ann Jackson: President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Smithsonian Institution Board of Regents: Chair, Governance and Nominating Committee; Member, Strategic Planning and Programs & Audit and Review Committees.

    January 29, 2011

    Dear Shirley Ann Jackson

    My name is Rachel Chapple. I am writing to urge you and your esteemed colleagues to reconsider the SMITHSONIAN Institutions censorship, in light of the decision made surrounding the significant piece – A Fire In My Belly, created by the contemporary visual artist David Wojnarowicz. As a mother of a tumble of young children, as an Anthropologist and a Museum/Exhibition designer, I feel deeply that the SMITHSONIAN’s censorship is a grave wrong doing. I urge you to consider the message you are communicating, as HIV/AIDS scourges through our communities bodies and perceptions around the world. I urge you to consider the influential role the arts play in messaging how we feel – how we imagine, empathize and care. The arts provide us with an important opportunity to reflect on who we are and who we would like to be.

    Real Stories Gallery is an online international artists’ workshop exploring through our visual arts, creative writing and storytelling the voices surrounding us, who are infected and affected by HIV/AIDS. Artists, an international heterogeneous group of empathetic men and women embedded in distinct localities around the world, have come together to introduce themselves to each other and to cross-fertilize ideas, through the medium of their visual arts and poetry and storytelling. In the face of a pandemic of physical and psychological pain, our art allows us to feel, to pull back the social and cultural stereotypes created by our fears and embarrassment, and so doing bring about a shift in perceptions which have prevented so much effective HIV prevention and been the cause of so much silence and denial surrounding the pain and death of millions of ordinary people.

    Our well-being is directly related to the health of the community surrounding us whether we are well or ill. Today’s technologies have expanded the breadth and depth of our social and professional communities. We can reach out a touch each others lives in ways we could never have imagined thirty years ago. Our thoughts and our actions, our words and or images have far reaching consequences – and quickly. Our communities today, both inside and outside of our arts, are difficult to disentangle and are truly international. The decisions made in one distinct locality affect another far away.

    This brings with it an enormous responsibility and demands in moments of tremendous urgency that we reflect on the consequences of our local thoughts and actions. Art and poetry and storytelling enable us to pause and reconsider the borders of our lives. They allow us to learn from each other and more forward with greater wisdom.

    Real Stories Gallery is endorsed by Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu and his colleagues at the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation, as well as by organizations such as Art For Humanity. They have stood up in the face of huge hostility and prejudice, and support the vision that the stories shared through our arts allow us to stroll into each others lives and shift the censorship of silence and ignorance.

    I believe there are times when it is necessary to speak as clearly as we are able. Conservative estimates suggest 40 million people are infected with the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). Huge strides in knowledge and awareness have been made over the past thirty years. We now know that 90% of HIV is socially transmitted through the exchange of bodily fluids taking place during unprotected sexual intercourse. We know that 85% of these encounters are heterosexual (oral, anal, vaginal). And we know that prevention measures and raising awareness make a profound difference individually and socially. Sadly, although 24 million women and 16 million men are estimated to be infected, these numbers are so small when compared to the millions of people whose lives are deeply affected and who are paying a heavy price for their communities silence and fears.

    Our courage to make difficult and perhaps costly decisions often springs forth, I believe, from our small voice of conscience. And, here, from our personal discomfort with the thought of having to look our grandchildren in the eye when they ask, as children always do with the benefit of hindsight: “what did our family and friends do?”

    The SMITHSONIAN Institutions censorship of David Wojnarowicz’s courageous and compassionate voice has been responded to by a few artists and poets on Real Stories Gallery. I included below for your interest, a recent conversation Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu shared with us all in March 2010. This speaks to how within the context of a western art world that is slowly becoming aware of and embracing the work of their international colleagues, words and images have powerful consequences beyond the distinct localities in which they were created.

    Thank you for reading my letter and for encouraging your colleagues and the guardians of the SMITHSONIAN Institution, for considering the many voices of contemporary international visual artists and their families and friends.

    Yours sincerely

    Rachel Chapple

    ———————————

    Some words shared with his international colleagues back in March 2010, by Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu: “Hate Has No Place In The House Of God”

    Hate has no place in the house of God. No one should be excluded from our love, our compassion or our concern because of race or gender, faith or ethnicity–or because of their sexual orientation. Nor should anyone be excluded from health care on any of these grounds. In my country of South Africa, we struggled for years against the evil system of apartheid that divided human beings, children of the same God, by racial classification and then denied them fundamental human rights. We knew this was wrong. Thankfully, the world supported us in our struggle for freedom and dignity. It is time to stand up for another wrong.

    Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered people are part of so many families. They are part of the human family. They are part of God’s family. And of course they are part of the African family. But a wave of hate is spreading across my beloved continent. People are again being denied their fundamental rights and freedoms. Men have been falsely charged and imprisoned in Senegal, and health services for these men and their community have suffered. In Malawi, men have been jailed and humiliated for expressing their partnerships. Just this month, mobs in Mtwapa Township, Kenya, attacked men they suspected of being gay. Kenyan religious leaders, I am ashamed to say, threatened an HIV clinic there for providing counseling services to all members of that community, because the clerics wanted gay men excluded.

    Uganda’s Parliament is debating legislation that would make homosexuality punishable by life imprisonment, and more discriminatory legislation has been debated in Rwanda and Burundi. These are terrible backward steps for human rights in Africa.

    Our lesbian and gay brothers and sisters across Africa are living in fear.

    And they are living in hiding–away from care, away from the protection the state should offer to every citizen, and away from health care in the AIDS era, when all of us, especially Africans, need access to essential HIV services. That this pandering to intolerance is being done by politicians looking for scapegoats for their failures is not surprising. But it is a great wrong. An even larger offense is that it is being done in the name of God. Show me where Christ said “Love thy fellow man, except for the gay ones.” Gay people, too, are made in my God’s image. I would never worship a homophobic God.

    But they are sinners, I can hear the preachers and politicians say. They are choosing a life of sin for which they must be punished. My scientist and medical friends have shared with me a reality that so many gay people have confirmed, I now know it in my heart to be true. No one chooses to be gay. Sexual orientation, like skin color, is another feature of our diversity as a human family. Isn’t it amazing that we are all made in God’s image, and yet there is so much diversity among his people? Does God love his dark- or his light-skinned children less? The brave more than the timid? And does any of us know the mind of God so well that we can decide for him who is included, and who is excluded, from the circle of his love?

    The wave of hate that is underway must stop. Politicians who profit from exploiting this hate, from fanning it, must not be tempted by this easy way to profit from fear and misunderstanding. And my fellow clerics, of all faiths, must stand up for the principles of universal dignity and fellowship. Exclusion is never the way forward on our shared paths to freedom and justice.

    God Bless You

    ——————–

    Some words shared with his international colleagues back in June 2010, by Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu: “Wear Your Heart On Your Sleeve”

    Twenty years ago, as we watched and willed each footstep Nelson Mandela placed away from the Victor-Verster Prison, we became reborn as a free nation. What we saw, said and felt on that day in February 1990, is imprinted in our spirit and has made us change our lives. It was the day we knew that our fight to dismantle racial apartheid had been won. It was a day for international celebration. Our friends around the world shared our joy, as together we stood up for the principles of universal dignity and fellowship. What a wonderful gift we created for our children and our grandchildren. We could look at them in the eye and proudly declare our legacy of freedom to them.

    Today when I look back over the emerging years of our freedom in South Africa, I see a new nation. Sadly, though, I also see a menace that was not dispelled twenty years ago and lives in the shadows created by our silent acceptance. That menace is the scourge of HIV and AIDS, the scourge that today rushes through the bodies of our people, old and young. And everyday when we let our fears cast the shadow, we let the menace grow. Let us reach out to our brothers and sisters and not speak in hushed tones of shame; but instead let them know that we care. It is time for us to nurture kindness within our homes and to reach out for joy born of freedom and respect.

    Today our international communities of storytellers are giving us the opportunity to come together and stand up for the principles of universal dignity and fellowship. I invite you all to join us, so we may harness the power of our humanity and our enormous capacity for creativity, to mobilize our imaginations and weave together through our stories, a vision that we shall reach for which will influence our thoughts and actions towards our kin.

    God bless you

  • http://www.real-stories-gallery.org Rachel Chapple

    “The Portraiture of Poets: AIDS Pietà” by Jan Jordaan (Director, Art For Humanity)

    Today our communities have so greatly expanded, in large part due to new technologies that allow words and images created in one place to travel quickly into another, so they may influence thoughts and actions in new and exciting ways. When art works and stories, which have played such a significant role throughout history are shared around the world, it allows us to introduce ourselves to each other, to express and reflect on our identities, and make connections so we may cross-fertilize ideas and knowledge and support. The arts encourage us to feel.

    Today I am deeply saddened when I look around me at the suffering caused by HIV/AIDS within the community I have lived in for the last sixty years. Today as a father and art lecturer I feel compelled to speak out in the only way I know how – through my print making, to raise awareness of the often insidious and silent abuse surrounding the social transmission of HIV and the thoughts and actions towards those infected and infected by the virus.

    In 2002, I had the privileged of working with the artist Pignon-Ernest, in my capacity as Director of Art For Humanity and Fine Art Lecturer at the Durban Institute of Technology (DUT). Ernest Pignon-Ernest, the man who was the prime motivator behind the ‘Artists Against Apartheid’ exhibition, had been sponsored by the French Institute under the directorship of Catherine Blondeau, for an HIV/AIDS Awareness project in collaboration with the students from the Printmaking Department at DUT.

    Pignon-Ernest created an AIDS Pietà consisting of a life-size charcoal drawing of a black woman carrying the body of a man. This was in part influenced by the photograph taken by Samuel Nzima of Mbuyisa Makhubu carrying Hector Peterson, who was shot in the ’76 Soweto Uprising; an image that South Africans easily recognize. It also plays on Kevin Brand’s “Pietà” that was a reconstruction of the Nzima photograph on the wall of the Cape Town castle. And, it references the imagery and stories flowing from the teachings of Christianity; in particular the stories of the violence and the compassion surrounding the crucifixion that has influenced so many artworks through the years. To South Africans, these images are powerful metaphors that tell the story of our history.

    Pignon-Ernest drew a life-size charcoal image of a black woman carrying the body of a man. One hundred large posters of this were put up all around in Durban and Soweto in places where people do not expect to see art. The Pietà has always spoke to suffering and care in the broadest sense, and now specifically in a South African local context. The local inhabitants of the area began to claim the image, some moving their goods so it was more visible.

    The reality of HIV/AIDS in the lives of South Africans allowed Pignon-Ernest’s work itself to speak to the image of a scourge ripping through the places that we live. Placing his full-size Pietà image within numerous everyday public spaces, encouraged men, women and children to reflect on how we feel and behave towards our neighbours during this period of heightened danger, cruelty and fear. It has also, as with all good art that speaks so directly and serves as a significant catalyst for conversation to heal and to shift perceptions, become an important historical document reflecting suffering, and loss of life.

    News travels quickly today. I recently watched the contemporary art piece “A Fire In My Belly” created by Mr David Wojnarowicz. This is a 20 minute 8mm film piece, created by a man who was dying of AIDS, and expresses the violence of human thought and action, and the pain and despair experienced by millions of people whose lives affected by the disease. I was deeply touched, and compelled to reflect on how social and cultural perceptions towards HIV/AIDS has played such a significant role in allowing the virus to become a pandemic. Which has given rise to a scream of images calling for awareness and compassion that have been created by artists such as Ernest Pignon-Ernest and David Wojnarowicz.

    I felt saddened to hear the news that the prestigious and influential Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C. had chosen to remove the Wojnarowicz’s art piece from their current exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. The message their decision transmits is extremely unhelpful in a moment in time when artists are fighting to protect those they care for so deeply. I urge all those who hold positions of power to determine the public display of important works of art such as “A Fire In My Belly,” to facilitate for their exhibition in the knowledge that works of art serve as important catalysts to encourage and promote conversation.

    Here, a conversation about HIV/AIDS that will shift discriminatory perceptions, feelings of isolation and despair, and give birth to an expanded community of ideas we may cross-fertilize, as we reach out to support each other during this time when too many people are still dying. Such a conversation will affect innocent millions.