When Art AIDS America, an ambitious exhibition aimed at demonstrating the impact of the HIV/AIDS crisis on the making of art and its presentation to the world at large, opened in October 2015 at the Tacoma Art Museum (TAM), little did its curators (Jonathan David Katz, Director of the Visual Studies Doctoral Program at the University at Buffalo, The State University of New York, and Rock Hushka, Chief Curator and Curator of Contemporary and Northwest Art, Tacoma Art Museum) or TAM itself anticipate the controversy that erupted two months later when a group called the Tacoma Action Collective (TAC) launched protests over the fact that only four of the 107 artists included in the show were black. As recounted in Larry Buhl’s article “Art AIDS America & Institutionalized Racism in Art” [A&U, June 2016], TAC saw this as a “lopsided representation of the racial demographics of the HIV/AIDS crisis when Black Americans now represent forty percent of the death toll from AIDS and Black Americans under twenty-four now constitute fifty-seven percent of new HIV diagnoses.” Buhl also quoted a TAC press release charging that Art AIDS America “largely displays HIV as a white gay crisis from the 80’s.”
In the talks that followed between TAC, the curators of the show, and the Tacoma Art Museum, agreement was reached in several areas. (1) Work related to AIDS by additional black artists would be added to later legs of the exhibition in Kennesaw, Georgia, the Bronx, and Chicago. (2) The Tacoma Art Museum commissioned a piece by black artist, writer, and archivist Sur Rodney Sur on the participation of African-Americans in the visual arts. Titled “Looking Back Half a Century, Almost,” it traces out efforts from 1969 through the TAC protests in 2015 aimed at securing a greater black presence in both American and international art exhibitions and greater support for black visual art production. (3) TAM’s senior management agreed to complete a workshop on how racism and structural racism in society oppress African- American communities.
However, not everyone was satisfied with these results. Perhaps the most notable dissenter was photographer Kia Labeija [A&U, April 2015], one of the four black artists originally included in Art AIDS America. Labeija told Buhl she was proud to be part of the show, but felt that “her inclusion was a placeholder to represent people like her,” explaining: “If I weren’t in the show there would be no representation of African-American women with HIV who were born positive. And that’s sad. I’m also the only female artist living with HIV who’s part of the show. I play all these roles. But I’m not the only one out there. I couldn’t believe that in ten years they spent [curating the show] they could only find me.”
Clearly here we see the worlds of art and politics in collision. We also see a critique of the white art establishment by black artists who feel marginalized not just as artists but in a critical part of their lives—their health—that at least for those living with HIV/AIDS has often been at the heart of much of their art. As Sur Rodney Sur’s “Looking Back Half a Century, Almost” demonstrates, this is not the first black critique of the white art establishment, and it probably won’t be the last. Yet what TAC was calling for is hardly unreasonable: a fair representation of how visual artists of color have interacted with a health crisis that has impacted their lives and the lives of their communities over several decades now and that has emerged in recent years as a heavily minority crisis in the United States.
Make no mistake: Art AIDS America is a magnificent exhibition in scope and intention. Kia Labeija is quite right to feel proud of her participation in a show demonstrating the profound impact a once despised and vilified illness has had on the contemporary art world. But a situation that leaves her feeling her inclusion serves as a “placeholder” to represent people like herself hardly does justice to her art. AIDS is one disease that forces people to confront their mortality on a daily basis and in an extremely personal way, and art about AIDS should convey those feelings to viewers in extremely powerful images. In a piece like Mourning Sickness, Labeija’s art does precisely that, and should represent no one but herself and nothing other than the vision she has chosen to communicate to the world.
I personally think the TAC protests point to a crying need for a couple of exhibitions with somewhat different slants. How about one devoted exclusively to the response by minority artists to the AIDS crisis? We could title that one Art + AIDS in Color. And how about a show conceived as a dialogue between the responses of minority and non-minority artists to this health crisis? Perhaps that one could be titled Face to Face: Art Confronts AIDS from Different Angles.
Titles aside, I think Art AIDS America should be welcomed for what it demonstrates about the impact of AIDS on the contemporary art world. But that doesn’t mean there’s no room to explore art related to AIDS in other ways.
Hey curators, museums, art galleries: Anyone out there interested in taking up this suggestion?
Note: The image shown with this post, Mourning Sickness (© 2014 Kia Labeija), is used with permission of the artist, the Tacoma Art Museum, and the Bronx Museum of the Arts. Art AIDS America remains at the Bronx Museum of the Arts (www.bronxmuseum.org) through October 23, 2016, then moves on to its final venue at the Alphawood Gallery (www.alphawoodfoundation.org; firstname.lastname@example.org) in Chicago from December 1, 2016, through April 2, 2017.
To reach Sur Rodney Sur’s “Looking Back Half a Century, Almost” online, type the words “Tacoma Art Museum Sur Rodney Sur” into your web browser; this should bring you to a result reading “Art AIDS America,Tacoma Art Museum,” under which Sur Rodney Sur’s name starts the first line of text; press on that result, and scroll down under the heading “On the Protest of Art and the Art of Protest” to the phrase “(download PDF),” which is the document you want.