The Beats that Echo Within Our Pulse
Eight artists (and one writer) reflect on World AIDS Day
by Chael Needle

When I think of World AIDS Day, my mind turns to Day With(out) Art and the two co-exist like the way arteries and veins run in parallel. They both share the same day, December 1. Day With(out) Art, started by Visual AIDS in 1989, one year after World AIDS Day had been created by the World Health Organization, once focused on the “Without”—those gone but not forgotten.

According to the Visual AIDS website: “A committee of art workers (curators, writers, and art professionals) sent out a call for ‘mourning and action in response to the AIDS crisis’ that would celebrate the lives and achievements of lost colleagues and friends; encourage caring for all people with AIDS; educating diverse publics about HIV infection; and finding a cure. More than 800 arts organizations, museums and galleries throughout the U.S. participated by shrouding artworks and replacing them with information about HIV and safer sex, locking their doors or dimming their lights, and producing exhibitions, programs, readings, memorials, rituals, and performances. Visual AIDS coordinated this network mega-event by producing a poster and handling promotion and press relations.”

A parenthesis was added to the day in 1998: Day With(out) Art sought to showcase contemporaneous artistic responses to the pandemic as well as “encourage programming for artists living with HIV.”

A&U very much had the same evolution as Day With(out) Art. The magazine started in 1991 as an archive, documenting the cultural work by writers and artists lost to AIDS, but then evolved into a way to spotlight how those in the community were picking up the tools of art and advocacy and sculpting a future. Both moments are important to us: remembering who has been lost / remembering to carry on; shrouding / unveiling; waves receding / waves crashing forth. We in the AIDS community know what life is, why it must be fought for. We do not seek to make the fallen disappear, but make them live again in our new selves. If our hearts at times seem cacophonous, it is only because their beats echo in our pulse.

So, as we mark World AIDS Day, make sure to honor Day With(out) Art. The artists featured in this month’s Gallery offer a work of art that expresses their reflection on what World AIDS Day means to them. Listen closely. How many heartbeats do you hear?

Insert from I Want Your Love, Richard Renaldi’s Autobiography, Published by Super Labo in May of 2018 , 7.5 in. x 10 in. / 176 pages / 103 full color plates / 59 duotone black and white plates. Printed in Japan in an edition of 1000

Richard Renaldi

“Worlds AIDS Day is a time to reflect on both the loss and collective trauma that people affected and touched by HIV & AIDS have experienced. It is an occasion to think of our brothers and sisters around the globe that don’t have access to healthcare and the affordable life saving medications which many of us take for granted. We all need to continue to carry the torch of activism so courageously and admirably executed by our forebears in the battle against HIV & AIDS.”
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David Spiher, Adrift, 2019, oil and silverleaf on wood panel, 16 by 16 inches

David Spiher

“On World AIDS Day, I reflect on the many people who died this year and the many who suffer physically/financially from co-morbidities heightened by their HIV status. It’s a day to take stock and clarify personally: How to move forward? I had to leave my money job a year ago to care for Ralph, who is in the late stages of early onset dementia likely triggered by his HIV, the exhaustion/stress level was just too high. Adrift is a response to the transitional anxiety (emotional/relational/medical/financial/residential) we have been walking through.”
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Hector Toscano, Love–Self Portrait, 2019, digital photography, 16 by 24 inches

Hector Toscano

“The first of December for me means the memory of all the people who are no longer among us. It is the celebration of life for all the people we continue [honoring] here, fighting, educating, creating, accompanying, loving, living. It is NOT to forget what was lived and thus educate the new generations about the care that each one has to take with themself. The photo where I appear and where it seems that I am getting into that deep red blood, in that blood where the virus is controlled or awake, where that red envelops me and shelters me, protects me even from the hostilities of humans and reminds me of how fragile I can be if I don’t take care of myself, if I don’t take care of the other. That is why that red also represents the purest love that can be given and received.”
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Alina Oswald, Angel in Central Park, 2009, digital print, 8 by 12 inches. ©2009. Angel in Central Park, black-and-white Lensbaby photograph of the Bethesda fountain in Central Park, inspired by Angels in America.

Alina Oswald

“As it turns out, World AIDS Day falls on December 1. The date, itself, has a personal meaning, outside the realm of HIV and AIDS—it’s my mom’s birthday, and she was the one who opened my eyes to the AIDS crisis, in the first place (see my World AIDS Day feature in this issue). It’s because of her that I ended up joining her in attending my very first AIDS conference, a long time ago. (Her plan, as I found out years later, was for me to become interested in medicine and, hence, follow in her footsteps.) The experience has, indeed, stayed with me, and, years later, gave me the courage to submit my first pitch to A&U Magazine. It was only upon starting writing for A&U that I discovered the more universal meaning of December 1—World AIDS Day. To me, it made sense. In a way, it connected the dots between my mother’s dreams for my future and what I’m doing right now, relative to HIV and AIDS.

“Since becoming aware of it, I’ve always considered World AIDS Day a day of remembrance, a reason to create something commemorating this day and what it represents, to revisit the history of the pandemic and wonder about its future. Also, World AIDS Day always brings to mind Angels in America (the HBO movie), which I always watch on this day. And I believe that there are angels in America, and in the world, too. While some are watching over us from high above the sky, many others live among us. After all, I often meet them in the artists, activists and advocates I get to interview and photograph for this very publication.”
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Robin Griffith, Water Lily Joy, 2014, photography, dimensions variable

Robin Griffith

“When I think of World AIDS Day I think about the ever-changing landscape of how AIDS and HIV is viewed. In the eighties, when I heard the word AIDS or HIV, It was filled with dread and death. The people in the gay community, who were affected the most, were vilified and blamed for their plight. Fighting for a cure felt like an uphill battle and it seemed like a cure was far away.

“Today, even though a cure has not been found, people are living longer because of medications and new treatments. It no longer has to feel like a death sentence; now life and love are both possible.
“This photo I took of a water lily represents my feelings of hope, life and love. On World AIDS Day I embrace these Ideals as we continue to strive for a cure.”

Follow Robin Griffith on Instagram robing.photoart. E-mail:[email protected].

Luna Luis Ortiz, Family Outing, 1993, gelatin silver print, 11by 14 inches

Luna Luis Ortiz

“I survived and thrived for thirty-three years with a disease they said I would die of at the age of sixteen. I managed to live with a determination that many found shocking at my young age. I fought through stigma and AIDS like a fighter in the middle of a ring. The day of my diagnosis is my other birthday because it was the rebirth of a boy called Luna, while World AIDS Day is a day I call my other Christmas. I don’t get presents but I get to speak the names of many of my friends I lost in the fight against AIDS. I get to celebrate their lives by thinking of them and feeling them in my heart. I get to reminisce by looking at them in the many photographs I have of them, smiling and living. I took their photograph so I could remember their faces. I took my self-portraits so I would be remembered. World AIDS Day is a day to reflect and to never forget how AIDS changed our lives.”
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Joyce McDonald, Compassion, 1998, air dry clay, markers, and Mod Podge. Courtesy of the artist and Visual AIDS. Photo by Michael McFadden
Joyce McDonald, Millenium Woman, 2000, air dry clay, markers, and Mod Podge. Courtesy of the artist and Visual AIDS. Photo by Michael McFadden

Joyce McDonald

“I am grateful to be a long-term survivor since 1985. I became aware of World AIDS Day in 1996 when I joined Visual AIDS and participated in an AIDS program by the Jewish Board of Family Services in Brooklyn.

“The art pieces that I selected to share were not initially planned——I felt a divine inspiration to create them and these were some of the many pieces that came forth. Compassion (1989) reflects an inner revelation that stirred my feelings during that time around the stigma of AIDS and that being diagnosed positive was a death sentence. As the spirit took over my hands, mind, and actions, I unknowingly mashed and rolled over the clay. As a strong anchor of hope settled down in me, I could feel it as my hand moved speedily over the clay; I knew I would not allow myself to feel defeated or be a victim of this dreaded disease. I had hope, I placed trust in God, and I would wear the garment of survival.

“When I came out of the creative tunnel of my emotions, my spirit had vowed to never give up. I always had compassion for others like my parents, especially my mother——who many in my community were drawn to, especially those living with HIV and AIDS. My mother always hugged and loved positive folks as much as she loved and cared for me.

“World AIDS Day represents all those cherished memories of over 200 men and women who I knew personally, and expresses care for all those surviving families who reflect on their lost ones today. World AIDS Day honors the thousands of people living terminally ill with HIV in hospital facilities. World AIDS Day represents life and hope to those living with HIV and AIDS and those lost due to AIDS-related complications. Compassion is WHAT THE WORLD NEEDS.”
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Roy Wilkins, Ebor Falls, Waterfall Way, NSW, 17th October 2019, photography, 64 by 42 inches

Phillip Shipton (words) & Roy Wilkins (photo)

A World AIDS Day Wish
“There have been a few now hasn’t there, World AIDS Days that is.

“I remember the late eighties and early 1990s, a silent sea of candles, thousands struggling in the evening to stay alight in the early summer breeze, bobbing their way slowly down Sydney’s once golden gay mile of Oxford Street. The bars and cafés eerily silent too with the patrons staring wide-eyed at the mute but glittering parade. Nobody was laughing today, just gazing at each other in the dim twilight on our way to Hyde Park to listen and remember. Most often I was alone at these passing out parades; by choice, all too aware of my pending ruin at the hands of this invisible virus. It was a time to be alone to reflect on my dicey future, to reminisce about friends and lovers, to meditate and contemplate.

“One year among the sea of years, watching the flame of my candle flicker like the lives of so many gay men around me, the organisers had put up a life-sized candle in the park. Internally lit, it shone like a beacon and attracted all around, I jostled through the crowd to investigate. The semi-translucent white plastic was covered in doodles and scrawling’s ‘I was ‘ere 1994 Teddy Bitchfuck,’ ‘Moody bitch died of AIDS,’ ‘Bye Bill love always XXOO,’ there was little room left for my few words.

“A Texta marker was handed to me. What could I write that would matter? A wish, a goodbye, an ode to the man who infected me who now lay six-foot under ——I chose to wish. An enthusiastic wish to survive. It was a close my eyes promise to myself and the witnesses around me that I will reach my thirtieth birthday.

“I’m lucky to have survived my AIDS-defining illnesses. I responded well to treatments; my 1994 World AIDS Day wish came true.”
Phillip Shipton and Roy Wilkins created The HIV Book Project, which is available here: Email: [email protected].

Chael Needle, A&U’s Managing Editor, coedited, along with Diane Goettel, the anthology Art & Understanding: Literature from the Last Twenty Years of A&U (Black Lawrence Press). Follow him on Twitter @ChaelNeedle.