An Exhibit in Paris of Work by Artists Living with HIV Seeks to Dismantle Stigma
by Chael Needle
Paris, one of the world’s art capitals, needs a wake-up call. At least when it comes to embracing artists living with HIV/AIDS and rooting out stigma. That’s the idea behind an international exhibit, organized by Bulgarian-born Parisian artist Boré Ivanoff.
ArtPositive includes work by Adrienne Seed (Manchester, U.K.), Nacho Hernandez Alvarez (Barcelona, Spain), Philipp Spiegel (Wein, Austria) and Ivanoff. The exhibit will run from September 7-25, 2021 at the gallery that represents Ivanoff, Galerie Marie de Holmsky. The exhibit has been made possible through partnerships with Élus Locaux Contre le SIDA; European AIDS Clinical Society (EACS), Brussels; Visual AIDS, New York City; and Forum Culturel Autrichien, Paris.
Ivanoff discusssed the idea for the exhibit: “Especially in my native Bulgaria, stigma and discrimination has traditionally been quite strong and cruel. Which, unfortunately, has not changed yet, even today. Through initiatives like ArtPositive, I hope to raise awareness in society and give courage and a personal example to all other people living with HIV who suffer from unjust and cruel family and public treatment. It is not at all easy, even here in Paris in the twenty-first century, to find artists living with the virus who agree to openly reveal their HIV status and participate in such an exhibition. I personally know such artists here in Paris who are still afraid and self-stigmatizing, and I hope that through this exhibition we will help them to feel freer, less ashamed and even proud to be the one of us, people living with HIV.”
Adrienne Seed, artist, writer, sculptor and HIV activist, has been living with HIV since 2002. “Back then, there were very few women speaking openly about living with HIV. I began to speak out via my website (hivine.com), via the media and of course via my art.” She described how HIV related to her works and series: “The Last Supper depicts an Alice in Wonderland-like scene caused by the hallucinogenic effects of the early medication. In the Venice series’ The Great Divide, the woman balances on a tightrope—isolated by HIV-related stigma with no visible means of support. The Fortune series is about when another virus—COVID—changed all of our lives. Like a deadly gong resonating throughout the world, the painting here reflects the hazards of these invisible viruses; HIV always symbolized in my work by the color red.”
About ArtPositive, she told A&U: “It was wonderful to come together as a collective of positive artists in Paris at the Art Positive exhibition, where we all hope to raise awareness and combat stigma through our art.”
Nacho Hernandez, who challenges viewers with re-formed images of Hitler and Samuel Beckett, presenting startling images of the body, said in a prepared release: “The purpose of my art work is to undress the character through a combination of images in order to find a relationship that tie me up with him.
“That is how I conceived ‘Sexuality as punishment’ triptych, like an artistic expression of the suffering HIV-positive persons go through in their lives; something I experienced in my own flesh. HIV is a disease that gets transmitted in a free sexual context, a loving mood with no intention of doing any harm.
“As far as I am concerned, there is nothing wrong with promiscuity in a free sexual context. You can find love in the most anonymous sexual intercourse; even if it lasts just for a few seconds. However, people with HIV live with a stigma; we are judged by society and we seem to deserve some kind of punishment.”
When asked why he decided to participate in the exhibit, Philipp Spiegel told A&U: “HIV in the arts is often associated with the eighties and nineties—and is often overlooked in a contemporary context. Of course the generational themes differ, but seeing there are still so many misconceptions and false information about HIV, I find it important to participate in an exhibition that shows life with HIV in the year 2021. The COVID pandemic also sidelined issues concerning HIV. Of course having the chance to exhibit an important cause in Paris is also an honor I would not want to miss out on.”
Spiegel’s work is part of a long-term project called “The privilege of intimacy.” Explains Spiegel: “My HIV diagnosis stripped me of my feeling of intimacy for a long time; something that was once so natural to me had been taken away after which I had to embark on a journey to rediscover what intimacy means to me, and to learn to appreciate it even more.
“Reflecting upon this, I realized the absence of intimacy is more widespread than I had thought. Not only people living with HIV, but all people who live in fear of being ostracized or stigmatized by a wide range of reasons. Single mothers, LGBTQ+ people in certain environments—or anyone who feels they need to hide out of societal reasons.”
While Spiegel zooms in to bodies, Ivanoff frames buildings in cityscapes, mixing abstraction with realism with reflective surfaces often creating collages. All of the artists in the exhibit have distinct styles and media and this embrace of difference gestures toward the diversity of life with HIV. The exhibit’s approach rises to the challenge of destigmatizing HIV by not painting everyone with the same brush.
A&U had the opportunity to correspond with Boré Ivanoff on the eve of the exhibit.
Chael Needle: Where did the idea for ArtPositive come from? Why did you decide to create the exhibit now?
Boré Ivanoff: In October 2019 I had participated in a group exhibition called ArtLab in Munich. There I met another participant in this exhibition, who was also living with HIV. So I thought, why not one day have a group exhibition with only artists living with HIV?
Shortly after my return to Paris, I discovered on the Internet that the EACS (European AIDS Clinical Society), a Brussels-based organization, was organizing an exhibition for artists living with HIV, which was scheduled for November 2019 during their international AIDS conference in Basel, Switzerland. I immediately contacted the EACS organizers, and luckily my application was accepted. I sent some of my artwork and traveled to Basel to personally experience the whole event, the conference and the exhibition itself. It gave me the opportunity to learn the names of several other European visual artists living with HIV.
Then, after my return to Paris, I suggested to my gallerist, Mr. Remy-Pierre de Holmsky, that we could organize in his gallery in Paris an international exhibition for artists living with HIV. Which in fact turns out to be happening for the first time in the history of Paris. He enthusiastically accepted and we even set dates for the exhibition, for June 2020. But unfortunately we had to postpone everything due to complications resulting from the global COVID-19 health crisis. In the meantime, I contacted several other artists living with HIV and EACS in Brussels to request support for the organization and promotion of the exhibition. It was around this time that I decided to do my public coming out and tell the world that I have been living with HIV for over twenty years.
I believe that these events, the Munich exhibitions and especially the Basel one, motivated me to take this important step and to start an active involvement in the fight against discrimination and stigma based on HIV.
How do you address stigma in your own life?
As I [mentioned], I was born in Eastern Europe, in the Balkans, in a country traditionally known for intolerance, hatred, discrimination and stigma towards different people, especially those infected with HIV. Unfortunately, that has not changed to this day. And the society itself, the media, the politicians, the religious institutions in this country are not doing anything significant to change things for the better. Even though Bulgaria has been a member of the European Union since 2007, the mindset of the majority of the population is still there on an older frequency. This is why over twenty years ago I chose Paris as my home, which is also essential and vital for my development and achievement as a visual artist.
There is stigma even here in Paris in the twenty-first century, but this also naturally makes me want to fight it and try to help people overcome and oppose it. In my opinion, art is a very effective and noble way to fight against the stigma and discrimination suffered by different people and people with health problems.
But now, over a year and a half after my coming out, openly declaring to the world that I am living with HIV, I can tell since I have lost a lot of friends and contacts. Mainly among my compatriots from Bulgaria, but unfortunately also among the people with whom I was close here in Paris and in France. Life is not easy, but at the same time I feel more free. In general, it’s common knowledge that artists are lonely souls on their own, and this fact helps me not to feel somewhat different from before. HIV is also a kind of stimulus and inspiration for my creativity, my personal development and achievements in life. There is stigma even here in Paris in the twenty-first century, but this also naturally makes me want to fight it and try to help people overcome and oppose it. In my opinion, art is a very effective and noble way to fight against the stigma and discrimination suffered by different people and people with health problems.
You mention that “HIV is also a kind of stimulus and inspiration for my creativity.” Is living with HIV reflected in your art as a subject matter or do your experiences manifest in a different way—a sensibility or themes, for example?
HIV is a kind of stimulus, a significant inspiration for what I create as an artist. Of course, not the virus itself, but the way of life, the feeling, the thinking, the sensibility caused by the radical changes in the spiritual and physical life that came as a consequence of the virus in the blood. Some of Shakespeare’s greatest plays were written during the infamous Great Plague in 1606 in London [King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra]. It is a well-known and scientifically proven fact that hardship and suffering are often beneficial for the artist’s work.
Living with HIV mainly reflected and shaped my way of thinking, my way of reacting to the social attitude that people around me had offered me. Art is also a way of communication, a kind of attack and defense, a reaction, an answer to life and society.
It’s curious, but sometimes I think HIV has taught me how to live a kind of double life. As a secret undercover agent operating in hostile territory, especially when I was in Bulgaria, a country that is still a hostile territory for people living with HIV. I was forced to build something like a camouflage wall between me and the people around me to survive. Life has become a constant theatrical play. Life has become a dramatic work of art. Which was as sinister as it was great and authentic at the same time, as it has to be Art.
This, of course, inevitably reflected on the visual works I painted, Not so much as a deliberate, conscious search and selection of given subject matters and themes, but more as a subconscious, even transcendent submission to an inner artistic impulse, a fruit of the sensitivity that is formed in people living with HIV.
Is part of the project reminding the public that AIDS is not over, as Philipp mentioned in his response? At least here in the U.S., AIDS is arguably seen by the mainstream as something historical, something more related to the 1980s than 2021. Is this your sense of AIDS awareness in Paris?
Yes, that is absolutely right! One of the main goals of the ArtPositive project is to tell the public that AIDS is not yet history, it is not over, and we, the people living with HIV, still suffer severely from social prejudice, stigma and isolation. In France, and I guess in the rest of Western Europe, right now the mass media and the official public opinion are doing their best to ignore AIDS and all these problems that people living with HIV still face every day.
My personal sense of AIDS awareness in Paris is that we need to remind society that AIDS is still here, and even if we live longer now, we still suffer psychologically and unfairly due to prejudice, ignorance, isolation and stigma, which are still strongly represented, even here in Paris.
It is also quite painful and insulting to me that my birth country, Bulgaria, as well as other countries in Eastern Europe, are still so hostile and ignorant about HIV/AIDS. There is a lot of educational and eye-opening work that needs to be done there. I hope that this project, even if it takes place in Paris, will have its impact in Bulgaria and in Eastern Europe as a whole, despite the complete silence and deliberate obscuration of information and neglect by the official Bulgarian media and other public Bulgarian representatives here in Paris or in Sofia.
“The Wombtomb triptych project was first conceived few months ago, after reading one of the most intimate biographies of Samuel Beckett. I was instantly seduced by the oeuvre’s approach to this elusive writer, focusing on the most personal aspects of his life.
In his book, Samuel Beckett, The Last Modernist, Anthony Cronin highlights Beckett’s insistence that he retained memories of his life in the maternal uterus. There is also documentation of cases when the psychological birth occurs before the biological one: ‘…during an interview granted when he was sixty four years old, Beckett stated: Even before the fetus breaths, he finds himself in a state of sterility, desolation and pain. I have clear memories of my fetal existence.’
“As I progressed in reading, I found quotes like ‘nostalgia of the uterus,’ ‘…remembrance of life in the maternal uterus’ and ‘wombtomb.’”—Nacho Hernandez
What do you hope exhibit attendees understand about artists living with HIV?
Our desire is to show the pretentious Parisian public that artists living with HIV can also create serious and precious art, which can be exhibited in a high-end art gallery located in one of the most beautiful and artistic districts of Paris, Germain-des-Prés. Let those who come to the exhibition or learn about it from the Internet and the media understand that HIV is not a barrier to great art, but even a kind of stimulus and inspiration. The real problem is not the virus itself, but the prejudice and stigma in people’s minds.
If you are interested in attending the exhibit, contact Galerie Marie de Holmsky, 80 Rue Bonaparte, Paris, France. To learn more about the exhibit and Boré Ivanoff, log on to: www.galeriemdh.fr.
For more information about Boré Ivanoff, visit: https://boretzart.wordpress.com.
For more information about Philipp Spiegel, visit: www.philipp-spiegel.com.
For more information about Adrienne Seed, visit: www.hivine.com.
For more information about Nacho Hernandez, follow him on Instagram @nachohernandezalvarez75 and also contact him by e-mail [email protected].
Chael Needle interviewed artist Jessica Tanzer for the August Gallery. Follow him on Twitter @ChaelNeedle.