The Power of Love
Artist & activist Jessica Whitbread and Visual AIDS discuss their collaboration in making the Love Positive Women project a global holiday celebrating HIV-positive women around the world
by Alina Oswald
Love knows no boundaries, or so they say, and it might just be true. Many people tend to offer (more) love, and also compassion and understanding on special occasions—hopefully on birthdays and anniversaries, and also around Valentine’s Day, Women’s Day and maybe even on March 10, National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. After all, March is Women’s History Month. But what if we could show our ability to love not only on special occasions and dates, but throughout the year?
The power of love is especially important when it comes to women living with HIV/AIDS, who, according to the International Community of Women (ICW) Living with HIV/AIDS, account for over half of all individuals living with HIV/AIDS. Especially in certain parts of the world, women living with HIV can have a very bleak existence.
Women face discrimination and violence on a daily basis, from their families, partners, communities, and society at large. Women living with HIV and in abusive relationships, for example, have been killed, their positive serostatus being used against them as justification for the atrocities.
Women also face discrimination and violence at the hands of those charged to protect their wellbeing, like healthcare providers and institutions. Witness, for example, the systemic violence from institutions manifested through enforced sterilization of women living with the virus.
As part of its mission as the only international network of and for women living with the virus, ICW has formed a unified response to this oppression.
According to its website, “ICW exists to lead efforts towards securing and improving the quality of life for women living with HIV. We do this by mobilizing, organizing, advocating, mentoring and raising consciousness on the issues that directly impact our lives.” To fight for health and reproductive justice, for example, ICW is involved in a number of court cases in countries like Namibia, South Africa, Kenya, Uganda, Chile, Indonesia, Thailand, and also the U.S. and Canada. There’s the case of a woman who woke up with ink on her thumb, later to realize that her thumbprint had been used as a signature for sterilization documents. Another woman, after giving birth, began to bleed profoundly only to find out that she had been, in fact, sterilized.
ICW’s mission can be everyone’s mission. If you are not a woman living with HIV, you probably know someone who is. HIV can happen to just about anyone and it doesn’t discriminate. That’s why it is imperative to try to change this systemic abuse, and that this effort includes as many people as possible.
In response to the lack of celebratory action within the HIV movement, and in particular within the HIV-positive women’s movement, in 2013, Visual AIDS artist and ICW member Jessica Whitbread, in collaboration with Visual AIDS, established Love Positive Women: Romance Starts at Home! as a call to action. Structured in connection with Valentine’s Day, LPW is an ongoing set of projects happening around and beyond February 14, using social media—and good old-fashioned word of mouth—to connect grassroots communities and enable relationship-building, as well as love and compassion for women living with HIV/AIDS.
“Love Positive Women is a global holiday, campaign, project,” Whitbread explains on Skype. I catch up with her on her visit to New York City, to be part of an LPW event involving artists and activists supporting women living with HIV, as she travels the globe spreading the word about LPW. “Strategically, Love Positive Women is around Valentine’s Day, between February 1 to February 14, because there are many studies that show that people experience greater amounts of depression around the holidays, following Christmas, New Year’s, and into Valentine’s Day. So, we were really trying to do something that was special, and make people feel good about themselves on Valentine’s Day,” she adds.
There are different ways to love positive women and show support. As part of the LPW initiative, during the first two weeks of February, HIV-positive women could choose to do something for themselves—buy themselves flowers, treat themselves to a pedicure or a massage, enjoy a bubble bath and a good book. In addition, their friends, lovers, and allies could also show their support, for example by taking women out on a date, in person or on-line.
And when it comes to dating, The Institute of Many might just know best. Inspired by Timothy Conigrave, an Australian writer and activist who died of AIDS-related causes in 1994, TIM is a peer-run group for HIV-positive individuals, based in Australia, and co-founded by Nic Holas and Jeff Lange. TIM represents a modern, contemporary HIV community of individuals who did not experience the pandemic of the eighties, but who are old enough to remember it. Among others, TIM offers short on-line dates to women living with HIV from around the world. So for the LPW holiday, TIM members, who are mostly gay men living with HIV, asked their positive sisters on dates around Valentine’s Day.
The Love Positive Women initiative is a celebration of life, and Whitbread invites everybody, allies and supporters, to participate in LPW holidays not only around Valentine’s Day, but also year-round, and in the years to come. “[People] can show their support in gestures of kindness and love throughout the year, and building up to 2016,” she says, “because a way to build community is to start with yourself. You know, to make change, you have to start with yourself, and be the change you’d like to see.”
Whitbread’s own contribution to Love Positive Women is a hand-stitched banner that says “Love Positive Women” in Russian. That’s because the artist and ICW member is aware that HIV-positive women in Russia, in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, live in the shadows. “A lot of it is based on language,” Whitbread says, commenting on her decision of hand-stitching the words in Russian. So she wanted to make sure that the women seeing her message could read it, in their mother tongue. She also points out that the main mode of HIV transmission in places like Russia is injection drug use.
“What I’m doing with this banner, I’m having people, strangers, anyone, pose with the banner, [and take a picture] and post it then on-line. This is my personal piece. I was just in Jamaica and I got taxicab drivers, some American tourists [pose with the banner and post it]. Now in New York, I get people [to do the same].”
There are many other ways in which individuals can participate in the Love Positive Women initiative. “My role is to support individuals and organizations to help them create different initiatives,” Whitbread explains, “whether creating a beautiful bulletin board in a community organization, holding up a piece of paper that says I Love Positive Women or making a video [like the staff members of COCQ-SIDA, an AIDS organization in Quebec] that is dedicated to women living with HIV. So it’s beautiful because the key is that the sky is the limit, and people have the opportunity to do whatever feels right and feels good. And people have lots of fun with it.”
In the U.S., Visual AIDS, in collaboration with Whitbread, participated in the Love Positive Women holiday by helping organize three papermaking valentine workshops to support women living with HIV/AIDS. The valentines where then mailed to women around the world.
To find out more, I reached out to Esther McGowan, Visual AIDS Associate Director. “Jessica [Whitbread] is one of our artists, and one of the driving forces behind Love Positive Women,” McGowan explains. “And we were talking about [the fact that] we have far fewer women [active] in our community than we do men. So in 2015, we [at Visual AIDS] would like to meet more HIV-positive women, to help them become more involved in Visual AIDS, either as artist members or in our community, to participate in some of our events.”
The thought of handmade valentines wasn’t new, but became a reality when pairing up Whitbread’s idea to do something nice around Valentine’s Day for women living with HIV/AIDS, with Dieu Donné gallery in Manhattan, whose artists create contemporary work by using by-hand papermaking. This particular part of the LPW project involved three workshops, which brought together Visual AIDS artists, artists who worked at Dieu Donné, and also those who’d done residencies at the Fire Island Artist Residency (FIAR). There were also AIDS activists, ICW representatives, who were not artists, but participated in the papermaking workshops.
In order to make the paper from scratch, artists used liquid pulp (from trees) in which they incorporated different objects, from playing cards to newspaper clippings and decoupages. Using different kinds of paper molds, they created valentines of different shapes, in a variety of designs and colors, most of them in standard business letter size, and also in smaller sizes.
“The way the paper is made,” McGowan reiterates, “you start with a liquid paper pulp, which is generated from wood, and then that is put into forms and left to dry into the paper, which is then flattened and pressed. And you get what you think of as paper. And it’s interesting because you are actually making the paper itself.”
There were fifteen people in each of the three workshops. They all ended up creating 150 different valentines. But there were also over two hundred e-mails, from women all over the world, requesting valentines. Some women who received the valentines sent thank-you notes, saying that those were the first signs of love and appreciation they’d received in over twenty years.
Love Positive Women has a strong on-line presence, but, even in this day and age, many women do not have access to a computer or Internet. Some live in remote locations, without a mailing address. “We encourage people in these locations to [start] their own initiatives,” Whitbread says. “Last year, a group of women decided to have dinner and mail valentines to themselves.” Whitbread also tries to pair together groups of women from different cities, and have them send each other valentines, and, in turn, help start personal relationships.
Love Positive Women is a holiday created around Valentine’s Day, but that can extend outside the first half of February. Carving out a specific time and space to focus on and celebrate a specific group, in this case, women living with HIV/AIDS, is what the LPW holiday is about.
Women living with HIV have been disconnected from the women and feminist movements for a very long time, as if positive women were not women first, Whitbread mentions. “It would be very powerful for us to be involved and included and celebrated not only for the Love Positive Women [holiday] but also for International Women’s Day,” she says, “[because] before anything else, we are women. And we are women that just happen to be living with HIV.”
Learn more about Jessica Lynn Whitbread at www.jessicawhitbread.com and about Love Positive Women, at http://jessicawhitbread.com/project/love-positive-women/. Like LPW on Facebook, at www.facebook.com/LOVEPOSITIVEWOMEN. For more information about women living with HIV/AIDS worldwide, and about the International Community of Women Living with HIV/AIDS, please visit http://iamicw.org. To find out more about Visual AIDS, or if you are a woman who would like to become involved in the Visual AIDS community, please visit www.visualaids.org.
Alina Oswald, Arts Editor of A&U, interviewed the creators of Well Beyond HIV.