I became aware of the term intersectionality, as related to HIV and AIDS, years ago, when interviewing artist and activist Avram Finkelstein [A&U, January 2017]. He would talk about the importance of looking at the ongoing HIV crisis through the lens of intersectionality.
Perhaps nowadays the term “intersectionality” resonates with many of us even more so, not only as an idea, but rather as a reality, or at least an intrinsic component of our reality defined by pre-existing crises (such as HIV and poverty) and more recent crises (such as COVID and the ongoing war in Ukraine).
But what is really intersectionality, in particular related to HIV and AIDS, and why does it matter?
Curious, I asked a few artists and they answered in the best way they could, through their art.
Here’s what they say:
Lester Blum – New York City award-winning photographer covering social issues surrounding HIV and AIDS and human isolation, and author of several books, including Through the Eyes of a PFC 1942-1945, and, the most recent, The Spirit of Ruchel Leah.
Intersectionality is the acknowledgment that each individual has experienced their unique form of discrimination and oppression. This discrimination whether related to gender, race, disease, sexual orientation or physical or mental disabilities serves to marginalize people. Often there are multiple causes for this discrimination which while non-related, integrate and compound to cause the isolation.
Over the years and in collaboration with artist Vladimir Rios, we have worked on several photography projects that emphasize inequalities prevalent in the world, inequalities that include the ongoing HIV crisis:
Warrior of Hope focuses on justice and individual rights, with a mythical persona who rises from the milieu to lead the way. I Still Remember illustrates the stigma attached to HIV, the denial of human rights, and an advocacy for equality and HIV awareness. And Invisible is a multi-layer visual documentary that looks at how society regards certain individuals as ‘invisible’ thus further marginalizing them.
It is time for everyone to be treated equally, and the first step, as a society, is to raise the veil of ignorance. Knowledge will make us rise up above the sea of despair. The time is now for true leaders to lead us out of oppression.
Steve Cummings – New Jersey visual artist whose vibrant paintings are oftentimes populated by “outsiders and misfits of American life throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries”
Much of my imagery concentrates on candid moments in the lives of my self-created LGBTQ+ characters. I enjoy capturing some of the joys and freedoms and comradeship that those in our community were able to experience—even before the Civil Rights movement, Gay Liberation, and AIDS. My characters (my people) smile as they embrace each other, but their eyes reflect an innate loneliness and hard-earned experience as they navigate through the world with those they love. I see parallels between the early 1980s AIDS era and what we’ve collectively experienced for the past two years—in essence, a profound sense of loss as we bear witness to people succumbing too young to plague. There’s an awkward and almost desperate attempt at human contact in the body language of many of my characters [who’re] laughing through tears through desperate times.
Kurt Weston—California award-winning fine-art photographer and long-term AIDS survivor and activist, featured nationally and internationally, best known for his black-and-white photography, in particular, his black-and-white portraits and self-portraits
My photographic portraits are a celebration of LGBTQ+ Pride, racial diversity, trans liberation, and otherness. Stylistically, I work in the tradition of Robert Mapplethorpe and while studying photography at Columbia College, Chicago, and acquiring my MFA from California State University, Fullerton, I have continued to prefer working with classic black-and-white photography.
My black-and-white prints record, preserve, and share the stories of individuals participating in Pride Marches, [those] living alternative lifestyles [or] on the margins of society. And now, more than ever, it is important to preserve their stories, as they are threatened to be extinguished [in certain parts of the country.]
Ron B.—actor, HIV and AIDS, and LGBTQ+ advocate, and celebrity host of the award-winning show, No Boundaries Up Close and Personal
“For twenty-five years and counting, No Boundaries has continued to offer a safe space for artists and activists to have candid conversations about many aspects of life—including equal rights and marriage equality; trans rights; HIV and AIDS; women empowerment; living with depression; and the most recent coronavirus pandemic and the myriad of issues and crises it has brought to light, as well as how to deal with all these issues intrinsic to our everyday lives.
“Thinking of the meaning and symbolism of HIV intersectionality reminds me that pandemics—HIV and AIDS, COVID—they do not discriminate. And I think that we need to be able to go back to basics and be aware, because, too often nowadays, many young individuals, in particular, tend to focus only on the virtual world they live in on their screens. And they don’t realize that in the real world we need to keep ourselves safe—to get vaccinated and boosted when it comes to the coronavirus pandemic, and to practice safer sex, when it comes to HIV—because these viruses, they might not affect one person, in particular, but they can affect a family member or a friend. So, having that awareness and safety net is vital.
Mario Sostre—New York City mixed-media artist known for his empowering, emboldening collages [A&U, October 2012]
Wolfgang Busch—award-winning filmmaker and LGBTQ+ activist, and CEO of Art From the Heart Films, known for his contributions to and work with the ballroom community
When thinking of HIV intersectionality, I think of the HIV and mental crises within the ballroom community, including artistic exploitation, the rejection from family, and homelessness.
Since the beginning of the pandemic in the early 1980s, the ballroom community [has lost ]not only many Icons and Legends to HIV and AIDS, [but also] much of its leadership and economy. For that reason, it is important for the society at large to remember the names of those we’ve lost, and to ensure that their contributions will always be remembered.
Throughout the decades of ballroom struggles, it is important to me to help the less fortunate members of the community by donating proceeds from the How Do I Look documentary to the Kevin Omni Burrus Burial Fund, to help pay for funeral expenses.
Kevin Omni is a Ballroom Historian and was inducted into the Ballroom Hall of Fame.
[Find out more by visiting online at https://www.howdoilooknyc.org/hivburialfund.html.]
Joe LaMattina—New Jersey visual artist famous for his oftentimes unconventional, rich, and colorful work
“Thinking of the intersectionality of HIV and other, perhaps newer, crises, makes me think of the hope of receiving good news. Good News is also an art piece I created at the time of COVID testing. It reflects the hope of receiving good news following a test result—be that related to COVID, HIV or other diseases. It captures that moment, that anticipation when we actually confront the news of a test result…with hope.”
So, does HIV still matters as a crisis? I guess the answer is a resounding yes. HIV is one of the underlining crises marking today’s society. While it hasn’t been a death sentence for many years and in many parts of the world, HIV can still complicate (and not only from a health and medical perspective) the effects of new, and, quite possibly, future crises. That’s because it seems that HIV is always around, never really going away. Not yet anyway.
Alina Oswald is Managing Editor of A&U. Contact her online at alinaoswald.com.