GMHC’s “Art & AIDS: 30 Years” Celebrates the Power of Art in the Epidemic
by Angela Leroux-Lindsey
On the eve of World AIDS Day, the Leslie/Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art in New York hosted an opening reception for “Art & AIDS: 30 Years,” a gallery exhibit featuring a stunning array of work produced by artists who are living with HIV. The gallery was packed with people eager to celebrate the talented and inspiring artists represented, and also to support a renewed commitment to ending the pandemic. Events like this one are important not just to raise awareness and bring together advocate communities, but to make a statement that art is a powerful vehicle through which fear can be overcome: fear of coming out, fear of stigma, fear of dying. These artists instead assert their hope, determination, and love.
More than 200 pieces comprised the show, featuring more than fifty artists, including Osvaldo Perdomo and David Livingston, co-curators of the exhibit. Perdomo and Livingston are also members of GMHC, a leading AIDS service organization that was founded in New York in 1982 and works tirelessly to provide prevention, care, and advocacy for the HIV/AIDS community. GMHC has been organizing exhibits like this one for years and is unique in its commitment to the arts as therapy. In fact, Perdomo discovered his artistic talent at GMHC after his diagnosis in 2004, and has said that the first time he sat in a life-drawing class was the first time he was able to think about something outside of the disease.
Today, he is producing sophisticated and evocative work, including a pencil-and-acrylic piece titled Living with AIDS Stigma that he created in a GMHC class and has already sold. It’s a simple, elegant piece, anchored by an obscured subject yet buoyed by a vibrant orange canvas that resists despondence. Livingston, too, displayed some of his work, including an untitled watercolor painting that exudes defiance: a muscular figure wearing boxing gloves directs his gaze off-canvas, his body language issuing a challenge against assumption and stereotype.
These pieces are just a tiny sample of the exhibit, which showcases talent in almost every medium, from the fantastic cut-paper creations by Brian Crede [A&U, August 2009] to the exquisite oil paintings by George Towne [A&U, August 2011] to the potent digital photographs by David Laffe. Each is imbued with emotion and reflects a spectrum of passionate responses to HIV. The collective energy is deeply moving, and galvanizing: experiencing the art all at once conveys the layered conversations the artists have with each other, and with the movement, in a unified shout: “We are still here!”
Following the reception, GMHC hosted a panel discussion, “The Power of Art in the Epidemic,” featuring leaders in AIDS activism including Charles Leslie, Mary Fisher [A&U, February 2001], Cynthia O’Neal [A&U, January 2000], and Perdomo. Each spoke about how art has impacted their lives to a rapt and overflowing audience, a testament to how much local support there is for these artists. Leslie, co-founder of the Leslie/Lohman Gallery (and now Museum), emotionally recalled how the early eighties “felt like the end of the world” because so many loved ones were dying, and the virus was not only misunderstood, but stigmatized—accurate testing was largely unavailable, and slurs like “gay cancer” allowed an insidious misconception to pervade the public discourse. Leslie, who is HIV-negative, established his Soho gallery in 1990 as a welcoming, safe place for art that is excluded from the mainstream. He’s exactly the sort of inspiring figure that has changed the landscape of AIDS awareness, and a tenacious defender of free speech and artistic expression. In response to one audience member who suggested that artists need to compromise in order to reach today’s youth, Leslie—speaking to the crowd’s passionate response, one man asserting that “censorship is mental slavery”—simply said, “Don’t underestimate people. They care.”
O’Neal, cofounder of Friends In Deed, an organization dedicated to providing emotional and spiritual services to those affected by a life-threatening illness, also spoke about how quickly minds can change when exposed to information expressed artistically. She described her experience meeting the then-unknown cast of RENT—a show she went on to see dozens of times—and how she witnessed audience members evolving their view of AIDS right in their seats. Sometimes all it takes to unlock the capacity for empathy is a new perspective, one that perhaps only the arts can provide. Fisher, an artist and activist, put it this way: “The act of description lacks the power to convey power…only the artists can speak for us when the experience is totally beyond speech.”
Paramount to the activist movement is a unified voice, an effective prevention campaign slogan. “Getting to Zero” was the theme of World AIDS Day and conveys the optimism and hope many feel about the effectiveness of antiretroviral drugs and other treatments. However, the number of new HIV diagnoses is still rising among certain high-risk groups, and outside of major cities, people are still afraid to talk about the virus and the options for prevention. Rather than emphasizing the progress made in the last thirty years—which is indeed remarkable—the public needs to know that the fight is far from over, and much more can be done to educate people in our country, and to provide affordable medication in others.
President Obama addressed these issues in his speech on December 1: “[M]ake no mistake, we are going to win this fight. But the fight is not over—not by a long shot. The rate of new infections may be going down elsewhere, but it’s not going down here in America. There are communities in this country being devastated, still, by this disease. When new infections among young black gay men increase by nearly fifty percent in three years, we need to do more to show them that their lives matter. When Latinos are dying sooner than other groups, and when black women feel forgotten, then we’ve got to do more.”
During Obama’s administration, vital legislation was passed that allows people with HIV to enter the country, and next year the United States will host the XIX International AIDS Conference for the first time in twenty years. It’s a meaningful step toward re-energizing international support for education campaigns and prevention, and a potent legislative act that sends a necessary message: AIDS is not over.
Angela Leroux-Lindsey is a Manhattan-based freelance writer.