Anatomy of an Issue
Sixty-four pages of who we are & and who we can become
by Chael Needle
For the first time in a year, I visited a museum. They have been open for a few months, but I have been closed to the idea. Though I have been eager to return to the Noguchi Museum or to MoMA to view my favorite painting, Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World, I have tried to stay safe during lockdown Now that I am vaccinated, I do feel safer.
My roommate had secured Free Friday tickets, timed for 3:45 p.m., and so we donned our masks, took the train into Manhattan and visited the Morgan Library and Museum to see the David Hockney exhibit, “Drawing from Life.” As I have mostly seen Hockney’s paintings (and a mesmerizing video installation at the deYoung in San Francisco), I was intrigued to see the artist’s approach to this genre. It was worth the trip.
Drawings of five of Hockney’s portrait subjects, charting changes over time and uses of different media, composed the core of the exhibit. Whether Polaroid collages or pastels, the works introduce the viewer to David himself as a young artist, his mother, Laura Hockney, textile designer Celia Birtwell, friend and former curator Gregory Evans, and printmaker Maurice Payne.
I left, feeling as if I had had brief conversations with each of the subjects, the representative aspects of each person emerging over the course of a lifetime of sitting for Hockney: Gregory’s soulful gaze, Celia’s recurring sartorial choices—vibrant patterns and a love of the floral, Maurice never smiling, or, rather, never looking like he is smiling.
Recently, as I have been looking through old issues of A&U for this column, I came across one issue that stood out for its A&U-ness, one issue that resounded with the magazine’s representative aspects, which are probably more easily detected across years of issues like one of Hockney’s subjects. But in January 2013 (Issue 219), across sixty-four pages of HIV/AIDS advocacy, A&U’s core components all come together in a stunning, coherent whole.
Like Hockney has done in his drawings, allow me to define and celebrate in the same moment. It may seem like an exercise in navel-gazing—let’s look at our own magazine!—but allow me this walk down memory lane as we mark thirty years of publication, for I am not talking about the magazine as an object but as a space where writers, photographers, artists, editors, and advocates come together in an act of collaboration. It becomes something like the organizations we featured in the issue (AIDS Foundation Chicago, Dancers Responding to AIDS, the Keith Haring Foundation, Planned Parenthood of New York City, and The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation): a collective of individuals all working on the same cause.
Let’s start with the writing. A&U has always been fortunate to feature stellar writing. Yes, we offer poetry, fiction, and drama that engages and educates readers about the realities of living with or caring for someone with HIV/AIDS, but we also offer well-crafted reportage, op-eds, and nonfiction pieces that do not shy away from the same incisiveness we expect from a work of literature. The magazine offers a slate of solid and absorbing writing from our editors and regular contributors and this issue includes David Waggoner, Dann Dulin, Chael Needle, Chip Alfred, Lester Strong, V. Anderson, Angela Leroux-Lindsey, Larry Buhl, Justin B. Terry-Smith, and Patricia Nell Warren. What I mean by “solid and absorbing,” which may sound rather plain as compliments go, is that the writing is never showy. The writing is never about the writer-as-writer. No matter how strong the writer is, and these writers are undoubtedly strong, the writers are always writing in the service of an advocate, or AIDS service organization, or an idea that needs more clarity.
In this issue, for example, columnist Chuck Willman tackles his experiences as a long-term survivor to give us a pep talk about accepting whatever emotions we feel and interrupting the stigma heaped upon us: “We’re struggling to stay healthy, stay afloat, stay sane, and stay alive. We’re NOT ‘whining’! There’s a difference, and we’re doing the best we can.”
In “Giving It Raw: How to Live with AIDS for 25 Years,” a piece drawn from his essays, Francisco Ibáñez-Carrasco traces a journey from Chile to Canada, stepping stones across continents, both real and imaginary: “I survived 1994, the wildfire of Kaposi’s sarcoma, the jungle of catheters, the tidal waves of Vinblastine and Vincristine, names of wild girls, and the volcanic heat of radiation—I fought a global cataclysm. Miraculously, a phosporescent chemical deity, I walked out of St. Paul’s Hospital to hide in a building on the East Side of Vancouver, and end my days. My everyday life was studying, learning to work in community in Vancouver and in national AIDS organizations, doing some public radio (no one could see my disfiguring KS), and writing a PhD thesis, a petulant swan song. Oddly, in my efforts to retreat, I often seemed to accomplish the opposite and it was during this period that I made long-lasting friends.”
Both writers are living with HIV/AIDS and speak their own truths, without censoring their thoughts or feelings. And when we interview others, we strive to represent advocates, without editorial interference so that their ideas can shine through to the readers. In this issue, Ruby Comer spoke to advocate Michael Beck, who discussed his career in AIDS fundraising, most recently at Cycle for a Cause. Chip Alfred caught up with Aaron Laxton (engagingly photographed by Sean Black), who had started utilizing YouTube in an early instance of social media-driven AIDS activism to get the word out about HIV criminalization, serodifferent relationships, and stigma, among many other issues. In closing, he told A&U: “At the end of my life whenever that may be, I want to be known as a person who effected change and made others’ lives better. If that has occurred, then I will know I’ve done something great.” And Chael Needle spoke with photographer Cate Cameron about an organization she helped launch, Cameras4Change, and her own photo series, “Ghosts & Dreams: Water, Women & HIV,” which offered beautiful portraits of individuals using their power to effect changes for themselves, families, and communities. Cameron described the complexity she tried to convey: “I do try to show a balance because I did see so much beauty and so much dignity and so much creativity and striving for better in all of the places that I’ve worked in. I think that I always try to show that, yes, there’s a lot of challenge, there’s a lot of difficulty in many, many places, and a lot of suffering, but there’s also so much beauty in these places as well and in these lives and in these people.”
In our cover story interview, Lester Strong chatted with fashion designer and HIV advocate Mondo Guerra, who shared how he learned that instantaneous empowerment is cut from whole cloth; when living with HIV/AIDS, resilience is not seamless and involves conversations with your doctor and with yourself: “HIV is such an emotional issue. There are good days and there are bad days. But even when you’re feeling healthy, it takes a lot to continue to be proactive about your health. I realized my life was being taken away from me, and it was happening because I was allowing HIV to define who I was. I needed to start setting goals again, not just goals for my health but goals for my creative life. That was the day things started to change.”
The artistry of Mondo is matched by the artistry of one of our brilliant photographers, Stephen Churchill Downes. The shoot captures the seriousness and the playful humor of Mondo, and it points to the power of art to convey the many different moods and moments within advocacy. This is what we try to spotlight in A&U: the often radically diverse paths to the same goals of healthcare access for all, an end to HIV criminalization, self-determined empowerment, freedom from need, understanding what it is to live with HIV/AIDS, to name a few.
Art can be a vehicle for positive tranformative change. Cultural activism cannot do the work that direct actions do—it doesn’t have the immediacy or the impact of putting one’s body on the line, but it should not be dismissed. Art can often reach a multitude of individuals, whether they are in Paris, France, or Paris, Texas, whether it’s today or two years from now, across ethnicities and gender expressions, across serostatuses. It can organize consciousness-raising in a different way.
Art, of course, is part of A&U’s DNA. In the January 2013 issue, we offered a review of HIV-themed movies to watch before Oscar night, an interview with Illya Szilak and her multimedia novel about a gay man living with AIDS, Queerskins, and a look at a telenovela, Sin Vergüenza, that explores HIV and its impact on a Latino family. In our Gallery, which is featured in every issue, Angela Leroux-Lindsey discussed the paintings of Frank Moore, whose works were in a new solo exhibit. Before he died in 2002 of AIDS-related causes, Moore not only participated in actions as an activist and initiatives as a member of the Visual AIDS Artist Caucus, including the Red Ribbon Project and the nonprofit’s The Archive Project, but he produced artwork after artwork that explored nature and environmental exploitation, the toxicity of pharmaceuticals (and the toxicity of capitalism and the healthcare industry), the circus that can be the medical arena, and the poetics of being a patient. In this last aspect, take a look at Lullaby (pictured above), with its snowflake-sprinkled patient’s bed, empty but for tiny buffalo, a gentle American landscape, with the promise of preservation near extinction. The lullaby is also a wake-up call.
Moore’s works still hold power today. As do the words of the writers and adovocates and the images of the photography within the pages of A&U, January 2013. All become time capsules, with seeds to be planted for future sustenance.
Chael Needle is celebrating twenty-one years at A&U. Follow him on Twitter @ChaelNeedle.