The Artist’s Voice
In his words as well as his art, Héctor Toscano reveals what makes him tick, what ticks him off, and how he Learned to be comfortable in his own skin
by Chip Alfred
Héctor Toscano is a man who’s difficult to define. Is he an artist? A poet? A philosopher? Or maybe all of the above? In any case, not only has Toscano created an impressive body of work to see, this guy also has a lot to say.
Diagnosed in 1994, the internationally exhibited artist focuses on his experience with HIV and his take on societal attitudes toward people living with it. “When I found out that I was HIV-positive,” he says, “the only thing that helped me was my art and to be able to use it as an outlet to express what was going on in my body and my mind. In my work there’s always something implicit about what I’m going through at a specific time.”
Born and raised in a modest neighborhood of Buenos Aires, Toscano grew up Catholic, a distant, introverted child with a penchant for art and
culture. “I was the weird character in my family because I always showed artistic inclinations. Since I was little, I liked opera and classical music and no one at home listened to either.” By age ten, he was studying painting and drawing. As a teenager, he attended a special school for the arts and developed a passion for photography—mentored by Horacio Coppola, a preeminent photographer and a key figure of the golden age of the art in Argentina.
Toscano’s first solo exhibition, “Vía Crucis HIV+” (1997), the one he holds closest to his heart, was well received. “This could be said to mark the before and after of my artistic career,” he remarks. “Vía Crucis (Path of the Cross)” includes a series entitled “I am HIV+” featuring a number of Toscano’s signature images—nude self-portraits, which he employs as “a way to show my sense of vulnerability.” In this series, he is alone, wearing nothing but a surgical mask to personify “the solitude of the moment of knowing that one is HIV-positive.”
“The doctor who examined me did not know how to tell me something I already knew,” Toscano, thirty-nine, recalls. “In the past there was a very ugly hospital sector for ‘HIV people.’ People thought that HIV-positive patients deserved to be HIV.” At least one piece from the collection is suggestive of a crucifixion. The artist’s bare flesh is adorned with body paint “in the form of real protection,” reminiscent of the Indian ritual of painting the body. “I lived as an analogy of the suffering of Jesus [on his way] to the cross,” he explains. “Society puts us on the cross and stigmatizes us or any person with disabilities.”
Another recurring image throughout Toscano’s art is his own sex organ. In his description of “Phallic,” a series of photographic collages, he
elucidates, “The phallic element can damage or give pleasure. Our bodies…brighten, darken with blame of some sin of the present or the past. The mirror reflects our wounds, the body cannot hide what lived and suffered.”
In “Mirrors,” Toscano’s lens captures the contrasts of his own reflection from a different perspective. “Finally I see, hear, listen, how nice it is to live. I will not break the mirror. I’ll just give you my heart on these images.” A few years later, he created We Are All Positive, with flowers overlaying a background of a positive HIV test result. “A simple virus, that demon that we cannot overcome. My house has no door, and I cannot leave,” he opines. “I have hate, I have anger, and I feel alone and unprotected.”
The artist takes us below the surface of the body’s protection from pathogens—our skin—for a closer look at the liquid coursing through our veins in “Blood Samples.” He characterizes this grouping as “putting a microscope on my body and trying to see what happens in it. Like a mad scientist looking at my own blood to find a cure for this virus, my mind never rests, as the virus [never rests].”
Though much of Toscano’s work may seem somber, it also helps him see the light. “I think I have created quite a lot during this time, but it never feels like enough. Sometimes I feel that I work a lot and I don’t enjoy the recognition that other artists do.” Describing art as a “channel of love,” he says, “I talk about it as a means to combat the depression that may occur as a result of my seropositive status. I see art as a mechanism to overcome darkness. Every piece becomes a mechanism whereby I can exorcise my fears and anxieties.”
Toscano attributes his battles with anxiety and depression to an unhappy childhood and adolescence. “My family didn’t show me how to love myself,” he admits. “I was on the streets since I was so young. A boy alone on the streets is tempting for some men.” As a result, Toscano ended up spending many years alone or in destructive relationships.
He says the anger prevalent in his work stems from the loneliness he endured and his frustration that he can’t accomplish the “many goals and dreams that I have.” One of those goals is to make a living solely from his craft, which he has never been able to do. Still, his attitude remains positive. “I accept my condition of HIV-positive. I’m not afraid that others know,” he declares. “I am just looking to be loved and valued as an artist and as a person.” Today, he’s grateful for his normal, healthy relationship of more than eight years, but he acknowledges it was a long, uphill battle to find the right man.
As a former sexually active youth, Toscano does have concern as well as some advice for the next generation. “I think that, nowadays, there is a resurgence of irresponsibility in relation to looking after yourself and safe sex. Many people know that there are medications and think this is a solution. They don’t understand that there’s something that cannot be cured with medications, and that is social stigmatization.” His message to young people affected by HIV is to learn as much as they can about the virus. “I tell them they are not alone. We must continue with our heads held high and without fear.”
For more information about Hector Toscano and his work, visit www.visualaids.org/artists/detail/hector-toscano#.UaC7qEBwqSo and http://ht-obras.blogspot.com/.
Chip Alfred is an Editor at Large of A&U and a nationally published freelance journalist based in Philadelphia.