Documenting Thirty Years of AIDS, Art Creates a Different Kind of History
by Chip Alfred
It was the summer of 1981. After several reported cases of a new strain of Kaposi’s sarcoma and a number of reports of pneumocystis among gay men, the Centers for Disease Control published a report. This is often referred to as the start of general awareness of AIDS in the U.S.—although it was still an unnamed illness with an unknown cause.
Now, three decades later, how do we reflect on thirty years of AIDS for those who lived through it, those who didn’t, and those too young to remember much of it? A Philadelphia man responds with a one-of-a-kind exhibit of visual art. David Acosta, a writer, poet, and veteran AIDS activist, is curating Witness: Artists Reflect on 30 Years of the AIDS Pandemic, a free multimedia exhibition featuring the work of twenty-three artists exploring the impact of AIDS on all of us. The show is on display in Philadelphia from December 2, 2011 through January 27, 2012 at Asian Arts Initiative, an arts center that engages artists and everyday people to create art that imagines and effects positive community change.
Looking back, Acosta remembers his initial reaction to the disease. “I was twenty-three that year. I had no idea how HIV/AIDS itself would come to define so much of my personal life, the experience of several generations of gay men, and ultimately how much it would impact people throughout the world.” The artists he selected for Witness represent a diverse gathering of voices across race, age, gender, sexual orientation, and geographic location. “Witness asks the audience to reflect on the HIV/AIDS epidemic as a transformative moment in our lives, our communities and society,” Acosta explains. “It calls artists to reengage
themselves in remembering and honoring the pervasive global influence of HIV and AIDS.” The curator made a determined effort to solicit young artists and target a youthful audience for this show, in light of the recent rise in HIV infection rates among young gay males—especially men of color.
An HIV/AIDS worker since the early years of the epidemic, Acosta, fifty-three, established Philadelphia’s Gay and Lesbian Latino AIDS Education Initiative (GALAEI), one of the oldest organizations in the country serving the LGBT Latino community. He is a founding member of Our Living Legacy, the nation’s first festival devoted to art and AIDS. Acosta is currently the artistic director of Casa de Duende, an organization that produces art exhibits and performances focusing on the social relevance of art and the artist in contemporary culture. Witness is facilitated by Acosta, under the auspices of Casa de Duende. The genesis for Witness was Acosta’s interest in the artistic responses to AIDS. “Artists were some of the first individuals to give voice to what was happening,” he recalls. So he asked a group of artists to mark this milestone with original work or works created specifically to address the issues surrounding HIV/AIDS.
Artists participating in Witness include: George Apostos, Laura Bamford, Craig Bruns, Tree Byers, Nannette Clark, Tay Cha, Ronald Corbin, Susan DiPronio, Jonas Dos Santos, Harvey Finkle, Ralfka Gonzalez, Link Harper, Theodore Harris, Ed Hall, HD Ivey, Albo Jeavons, Peter Lien, Gabriel Martinez, Kwaku Osei, Chanthaphone Rajavong, Marta Sanchez, Zoe Strauss, and Jombi Supastar. The exhibit is comprised of painting, mixed media, sculpture, photography, installation art, and video. The inclusion of both old and new visual arts was intentional. “It’s historically important as a recognition of work…before the scientific and political advances of today,” Acosta declares. He believes this art gives context to AIDS in its early years, “creating the language and narratives through which the world came to see it and understand it.”
Chanthaphone Rajavong grew up during the AIDS crisis and says the impact on his life and art has been intense. “Through my drawings and sculptures I have explored the themes of pain and loss.” Rajavong’s light sculpture, Blood Cells, represents “the beauty of the red liquid that circulates in the arteries and veins of humans.”
Responding to the call from Acosta, artist Tree Byers relives his personal story of love and loss. “In 2000, my dear friend Blue died from AIDS quite suddenly. I was not prepared to lose him. Yet slowly I was learning that grief is the garden of compassion.” Byers was motivated by the Witness project to dig through old photos and images to pay tribute to the friends he lost.
Tay Cha wants his work “to show how the AIDS epidemic shakes the individual as well as their support networks to the core.” Cha’s art addresses this in two ways. “Either I depict characters that are in a lot of physical pain or characters that have the power to heal one another through love and compassion.” His goal is to remind people we need to continue to raise awareness, increase education for teens of all communities, and eradicate the stigma for people with AIDS who need support systems.
A physician who cares for HIV/AIDS patients at Drexel University’s College of Medicine, Dr. Laura Bamford photographs everyday people living and/or working with HIV. “These photographs illustrate that HIV doesn’t discriminate based on age, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic status,” Bamford asserts. She points out the great strides the medical community has made in terms of treatment and prevention, but as a society there’s one area where we fall short—dealing with stigma. “The people that I approached to photograph show that HIV does not define them. These individuals have courageously shared their likenesses and their stories to enlighten others. They are all truly living positively.”
Ed Hall, a digital painter, expresses the message of longing in his contribution to the show, Gone Not Forgotten. His piece conveys the feeling of loss. “If someone is not physically here, their memories are still with us.” Hall, who suffers from a terminal illness (not AIDS), contemplates his own mortality and worries about his HIV-positive friends. “It’s heartbreaking that someday I may not be able to call them, give them a hug or spend time with them.” Yet his creative philosophy remains upbeat and optimistic. “The message I want my work to say is that despite differences, illnesses, appearances, we are all human, we all hurt, feel and love. I want to show the beautiful side of being human no matter what happens on the inside.”
A performance and installation artist whose works pay homage to those who perished because of this epidemic, Gabriel Martinez sees those works as “a sort of ephemeral memorial.” Anthology, which is included in Witness, transforms a dozen Donna Summer albums into a unique installation piece. For Martinez, who states that the theme of AIDS has been at the center of his work from the beginning of his career, Anthology is extremely emotional. Looking back at the 1970s, Martinez (then a prepubescent boy) admits being obsessed with Ms. Summer—who was at the time the reigning queen of gay dance club music. While recalling the bright lights of the disco ball in its heyday—a symbol of gay liberation—Anthology foreshadows the dark days of the AIDS epidemic that lie ahead.
Harvey Finkle is a photographer who documented the initial silence and lack of government response to the epidemic, along with the protests and
demonstrations—mostly from gay activists and organizations like ACT UP—that followed. Despite the fact that Finkle was photographing a community he refers to as “at the periphery of my life experiences,” his stark black-and-white prints capture the endemic rage of the gay community’s reaction. “ACT UP pushed the envelope. They were fearless,” he declares. “These people were bold enough, daring enough, resourceful enough and creative enough to find ways to pressure the political gurus to do something about it.” He adds that “many of these actions were filled with a warmth…a harmony that comes from people joining together to overcome the result of long-standing oppression.”
George Apostos contributed a series of portraits to Witness called Faces Unseen, featuring images of men with their backs to the viewer. His work takes us back to the beginning of the pandemic, when the world initially turned its back on those with the disease, and some with the disease turned their backs on the world. Now Apostos has faith that people with AIDS can face the world head-on and see things in a different light. “All of us hope to walk towards a healing future. All of us hope to bask in an enlightenment, to face the self, devoid of the opinion of others.”
Nannette Clark, an artist and sculptor, emphasizes how crucial it is to make people aware that AIDS is still a major health crisis. “My work and the work of the other artists in the exhibit will hopefully help to continue to raise the consciousness of the ongoing seriousness and emergency situation of AIDS both domestically and throughout the world.”
Nancy Chen from the Asian Arts Initiative introduced the show’s premier, emphasizing how HIV/AIDS has affected Asian communities. While acknowledging the issues of cultural avoidance and stigma as barriers to HIV prevention worldwide, she remarked, “Within the Asian and Pacific Islander community it is especially important to recognize that social discrimination and the lack of…support for sexual and racial diversity can negatively impact self-esteem and positive self-identity, thus increasing HIV risk.”
At the opening night reception, the crowd of patrons attending the exhibition was as diverse as the artists displaying their work. Nicolas Deroose, a university student from Singapore, appreciated the variety of artists sharing their own unique stories. “I’m impressed by the diversity of media and the diversity of voices,”
he said. “Asian Arts Initiative made a conscious effort to put together an inclusive exhibition and that’s a wonderful thing.” Noel Ramirez, who works in AIDS prevention and education, was inspired by what he saw. “I work in public health and we look at the virus as very black and white. There’s a stencil of what HIV looks like. This gives it color,” he commented. “What resonated with me about this exhibit is that it looks at HIV/AIDS not just as a public health issue, it contextualizes it as a social issue. It helps me remember why I do what I do.”
Acosta hopes Witness will bring to the forefront the impact of the epidemic on our individual and collective lives and create a dialogue among communities affected by HIV. “This show allows us to reflect on what was, what is, and the possibilities of what can be.”
Chip Alfred is Editor at Large of A&U and a nationally published freelance journalist living in Philadelphia.