A History of Erasing Black Artists and Bodies from the AIDS Conversation

The murderous impact of homophobia on the AIDS crisis is so apparent and traumatic that the violent, systemic racism that undergirds it gets lost.

Christopher Jordan, "Still Dying" (2015) (courtesy of Tacoma Action Collective)
Christopher Jordan, “Still Dying” (2015) (courtesy of Tacoma Action Collective)

On December 17, 2015, activists from the Tacoma Action Collective (TAC) staged a die-in between Jim Hodges’s “When We Stay,” a delicate installation of silk and polyester flowers, and Keith Haring’s bronze sculpture “Alter Piece” to protest both the lack of black representation in the exhibition Art AIDS America and the anti-black racism that is being felt at the Tacoma Art Museum, where the show is currently on view. With HIV/AIDS impacting black communities at disproportionately high rates, the protesters want to see this reality reflected in the roster of artists featured in the exhibition.

As part of their protest — which included chants, as well as T-shirts and decals broadcasting the message “stop erasing black people” — TAC named three demands: “more black staff at all levels of leadership” at the museum, retraining museum staff and board on “undoing institutional racism,” and greater black representation within the exhibition as it tours nationally in 2016. Foundational to their frustration is not just the exhibition itself but also how it came to be.

Die-In protest (photo courtesy of Tacoma Action Collective)
Die-In protest (photo courtesy of Tacoma Action Collective)

Art AIDS America, 10 years in the making, was curated by Jonathan David Katz, director of the Visual Studies doctoral program at the University of Buffalo, and Rock Hushka, Tacoma Art Museum’s chief curator. It aims to explore the role AIDS has had in shaping artists, artwork, and the art world over the last 30 years. In his essay for the exhibition catalogue, Katz writes: “I will be so bold as to argue that today’s art world is, at its core, a child of AIDS, and that forms of critical / theoretical framing and institutional display that are now taken for granted are informed [more] by AIDS than by another single factor.”

Such an exhibition is necessary because, to many, the art world has largely being silent about the epidemic, both in the past and in the present. Katz writes, “We must attend not to the macro effects of AIDS, but to the micro ones, most centrally to the way it subtly redrew the parameters of art critical discourse, and thus also redrew artist’ own strategic thinking as they sought to represent their response to AIDS.”

It’s here one would argue — at the site of the mighty micro-aggression of exclusion — that the curators and the protestors find themselves in dispute. For Katz and Hushka, Art AIDS America is working to end the silence around AIDS in the art world. For the protestors, the exhibition is in fact adding to it.

photo courtesy of Tacoma Action Collective
photo courtesy of Tacoma Action Collective

The lack of black representation in the show, the protesters argue, violently obscures the reality of HIV. In a statement, TAC claims that Art AIDS America “paints HIV as an issue faced predominantly by white gay men, when in fact the most at-risk group are currently black trans women.” TAC is fighting for a more intersectional approach, rooted in the black experience. They write, “white supremacy, gender justice, economic inequality and access to medical care are not sideline issues in the topic of HIV.” They are making the connection that it is through art and culture that people learn about issues like HIV, so to make a show that does not reflect the current complex lived reality is irresponsible and untrue.

In support of the protest, Kia Labejia took to Facebook to write about her experiences being one of only five black artists in the exhibition (along with Nayland Blake, Derek Jackson, Kalup Linzy and Glenn Ligon). She cataloged how both her involvement and fee were scaled down without proper notification, how communication in general was scarce, and how uncomfortable she felt during her first meeting with Hushka.

She is not alone in having had an upsetting exchange with Hushka. In a published conversation he had with black artist and organizer Christopher Jordan that went viral, Jordan talks about how negative of an experience viewing the exhibition was for him and his friends, saying, “demographically, HIV is us.” Hushka responded by talking about art practices before Jordan stopped him:

Jordan: Ok I’m concerned though that this show is 30 years behind. You’re saying as far as exploring the story of the prevalence of HIV in Black America…

Hushka: You have to wait for the next one.

Central to the clash between protestors and the curators is the role of the canon. As Jordan has pointed out, the exhibition was marketed as introducing and exploring “the whole spectrum of artistic responses to AIDS,” yet it does not include black people in a meaningful way. How did this happen? While it’s easy to point fingers at Hushka and Katz, the problem is bigger. It is, in fact, systemic. It’s about the problem of trying to canonize an ongoing epidemic, and about major issues with museum leadership.

Stop the Censorship! demonstrations December 2010 (photo by of the author for Hyperallergic)
Stop the Censorship! demonstration, December 2010 (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

It’s an open secret that getting Art AIDS America to exhibition was not easy. Lenders were wary of having their artists associated with HIV, museums and galleries were reluctant to have an AIDS show, and many interpersonal issues reared up along the way. TAM, the Bronx Museum (which will host the exhibition from June 23 to September 11, 2016), and the Zuckerman Museum of Art Kennesaw State University, GA (which will host the exhibition from February 9 to May 21, 2016) should be applauded for recognizing the need for such a show. But that does not mean these institutions shouldn’t be question about how and why the show is the way it is. The museum leadership has as much to answer for as Katz and Hushka do.

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Katz has been targeted by protests before. In December 2010, he, along with co-curator David Ward, found themselves in the middle of a controversy surrounding the exhibition Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture at the Smithsonian Portrait Gallery. The point of contention was the censorship and removal of queer, HIV-positive artist David Wojnarowicz’s (edited) video “Fire in My Belly,” which included a section where ants can be seen walking across a small statue of Jesus. The Catholic League, through then–Minority Leader John A Boehner and Rep. Eric Cantor, insisted upon the video’s removal, and Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough agreed to pull it, fearing the possible loss of federal funding. Immediately other artists in the show, starting with AA Bronson, demanded that their work be removed as well. Museums and galleries around the world showed “Fire in My Belly” for free, often in their lobbies and front windows, and in New York and DC, protesters took to the street wearing Wojnarowicz masks and wielding iPads showing the video.

Stop the Censorship! demonstrations, December 2010 (photos by the author for Hyperallergic)
Stop the Censorship! demonstration, December 2010 (photo by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

If Art AIDS America is an attempt to highlight the silenced AIDS-inspired machinations of the contemporary art world, Hide/Seek was an attempt to unveil the same-sex desire that had so long been closeted by academics and institutions. Even though some visitors felt Hide/Seek was too white, too male, and too homonormative, there is no denying that Katz was pushing back against the heterosexist gaze that dictates how art is seen in most major US museums, galleries, and educational institutions. And although he did speak out against the Smithsonian’s decision, many wanted him to take a stronger position, to stand up for Wojnarowicz and what he represents. With both exhibitions, Katz set himself the task of trying to expose realities within the canon of Western art that are otherwise being suppressed — but in both cases, it was at the expense of certain bodies.

With Art AIDS America, one can feel the care Katz has for the artists he is working with. He is in awe of what they have accomplished, and he wants to share their strategies with the world. But he could have and should have anticipated the protests: as the exhibit itself emphasizes, when you silence a people, they will rise up and make demands of the future. By not including black artists in a meaningful way, Katz and Hushka failed not only to be aware of the politics of our time, but also to make an ally of their audiences. Any show that takes on the canon must first contend with the context within which that canon exists.

In their press release, TAC begins by pointing out that black Americans are disproportionately impacted by HIV and AIDS, but are drastically underrepresented in the show: less than 5% of the 107 artists in the exhibition are black. This fact is not to obscure the diversity that does exist in the exhibition; artists with a variety of complex backgrounds and identities are featured, including Luis Cruz Azaceta, Carrie Yamaoka, Martin Wong, Masami Teraoka, Tino Rodriguez, Thomas Haukaas, Félix González-Torres, General Idea, Luis Cruz Azaceta, and Julie Tolentino. Speaking with Hyperallergic, critic Anthony Easton pointed out that “attending to the silencing of communities not in the show should not come at the expense of others often silenced who are in the show.”

Statistics courtesy of the Tacoma Action Collective
Statistics courtesy of the Tacoma Action Collective

Leading up the exhibition, Hushka and Katz hosted many consultations both locally and nationally. Jordan recalls, in a 2011 consulting meeting he attended, a discussion about “the mistrust that museums and medical research institutions have garnered by both exploiting and alienating black communities,” as well as how much work would need to be done to address such issues.

On Facebook, DC-based writer and activist Kenyon Farrow wrote of his 2011 meeting with Hushka and Katz: “a few of us pointed out [that] focusing on ‘canonical’ works would obviously limit the voices to mostly white men, and suggested they lean against that direction. I also … suggested they … expand what was considered ‘art’ [to] include Marlon Riggs, house music, hip-hop, and ballroom culture … Obviously none of that was taken seriously.” Filmmaker and curator Jim Hubbard has also spoken out about the exhibition’s narrow focus, echoing Farrow’s point that by limiting the forms they focused on, Katz and Hushka limited their ability to include black artists.

For the protestors, the slogan “stop erasing black people” is not just about a list of names in a show. They are asking Katz, Hushka, and the museums hosting the exhibit: What have you done to overcome the white supremacy of the art world? How did Art AIDS America get by the TAM leadership without question? How was it approved by the Bronx Museum and others? How did an exhibition celebrating those who pushed back against the limits of the canon get it so wrong?

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In order to make sense of how we got here, we have to look back at the recent past — back to the beginning of AIDS in the United States.

As a writer and organizer whose work focuses primarily on HIV/AIDS, I have spent the last five years looking at the ways the US AIDS crisis is represented within the media ecosystem. After the introduction of life-saving medication in 1996, there was a drop in the amount of AIDS-related culture — such as books, plays, and activist action — that was being produced and shared. I call this the Second Silence, the first being the five years between 1981 to 1986 when President Ronald Reagan did not say the word “AIDS,” which was emblematic of both his administration’s failure to properly address the crisis and the systemic homophobia of the time.

Beginning around 2008, there was a revival of sorts in AIDS-related media, which I call the AIDS Crisis Revisitation. This is exemplified through the creation and reception of documentary films like How to Survive a Plague, United in Anger, We Were Here, and Last Address; museum exhibitions like AIDS in New York: The First 5 Years (New York Historical Society) and Why We Fight: Remembering AIDS Activism (New York Public Library); retrospectives on Gran Fury (80WSE, NYU), General Idea (Musée d’Art Moderne), and Frank Moore (Grey Art Gallery, NYU); gallery shows such as the remount of Rosalind Solomon’s Portraits in the Time of AIDS, 1988 (Bruce Silverstein Gallery); books such as Fire in the Belly: The Life and Times of David Wojnarowicz by Cynthia Carr and The AIDS Generation: Stories of Survival and Resilience by Perry Halkitis; and the re-emergence of AIDS activism through new collectives (such as QUEEROCRACY) and the revitalization of preexisting groups (AIDS ACTION NOW in Toronto, ACT UP in New York and San Francisco).

On screens, on walls, and in discourse, the mass deaths and community responses are remembered through culled and curated video and film footage, photos, and ephemera from personal collections as well as individual and institutional archives. Footage of pre/re-gentrified urban centers populated primarily by passionate white twenty-somethings fighting for their lives conjure up memories and trauma for many who were there, a possible displaced nostalgia for those who were not, and a desire for many to be able to return to such an engaged moment (without the loss).

The AIDS Crisis Revisitation is both helpful and fraught, and at this point it is too narrow to be truly instructional or liberative. In The New Inquiry, Tyrone Palmer wrote about how AIDS history that is “now remembered and canonized” was appearing “in memory as decidedly white and middle-class.” Art AIDS America is absolutely guilty of this narrow, unhelpful view.

Christopher Jordan, "Where Pride Began" (2015) (courtesy of Tacoma Action Collective) (click to enlarge)
Christopher Jordan, “Where Pride Began” (2015) (courtesy of Tacoma Action Collective) (click to enlarge)

The story of AIDS in America begins long before the New York Times reported a “rare cancer seen in 41 homosexuals” in 1981, and long before the contemporary art world became involved. In her ACT UP oral history interview, Betty Williams, a nurse who worked with homeless people in the 1970s, remembers how people would label a friend’s death as “junkie flu” or “the dwindles.”

In truth, it wasn’t until gay men with access to decent doctors got sick that anyone started to pay attention to what we would come to understand was HIV/AIDS. Exhibitions like Art AIDS America ensure that what Cindy Patton has called the “queer paradigm” of HIV remains intact, meaning that as long as we see HIV primarily through the lens of minoritized people’s behavior and identity, we will never understand the bigger picture of the epidemic. The murderous impact of homophobia on the AIDS crisis is so apparent and traumatic that the violent, systemic racism that undergirds it gets lost.

*   *   *

This summer, in St. Louis, I began researching the life and death of Robert Rayford, a 16-year-old black teenager who died of HIV-related complications in 1969. This was not confirmed until 1987, after two years of testing his tissue that had been saved at the time of his death. The revelation of the cause of Rayford’s death upended the conventional wisdom of the time — which insisted that HIV had entered the US in the 1970s — suggesting that HIV had in fact been circulating here as early as the mid-1960s, and not just along the nation’s coasts, but also in the heartland.

Theodore Kerr, "AIDS 1969, St. Louis" (2015) (image courtesy of the author)
Theodore Kerr, “AIDS 1969, St. Louis” (2015) (image courtesy of the author)

But when Rayford’s story came out, it was overshadowed by Patient Zero. The same week that the Chicago Tribune and the St. Louis Post Dispatch ran a story about Rayford’s death, St. Martin’s Press released a statement regarding Randy Shilts’s upcoming book And the Band Played On that read, in part, “What remains a mystery for most people is where AIDS came from and how it spread so rapidly though America. In the most bizarre story of the epidemic, Shilts found the man whom the CDC dubbed the ‘Patient Zero’ of the epidemic.” Within days, the New York Post ran its infamous headline: “THE MAN WHO GAVE US AIDS.”

What has long been suspected was confirmed last year: the “Patient Zero” theory was a myth, an assemblage of some CDC findings, the real-life biography of a French Canadian flight attendant, and Shilts’s own imagination. But the damage has long been done. Patient Zero was right on time to be the face of the AIDS Villain who could explain it all away: people with HIV could not be trusted, and the virus was perpetuated through deviant behavior that was emblematic of the gay lifestyle. There has never been much room for stories that disrupted this established discourse, or efforts made to get to the root of AIDS before AIDS.

In the last few years I have attended many screenings and public discussions about the intersection of art, AIDS, and activism. More often than not, question like “Where are the black people?” are raised, be it on a panel, on the walls of a gallery, or in a film. At one screening I helped organize while working for Visual AIDS, during the Q&A a black woman in her early 40s said, “To the young woman who asked the filmmaker where are all the black people in his film, I can tell you where they were: there were working, or at home taking care of their loved ones and not able to tell anybody.”

At an AIDS symposium in Toronto, a black woman in her late 20s suggested that if we are going to try to represent the history of AIDS, we are going to have to do more than just visit the archives, because “no one was talking picture of the women who looked like me.” She went on to share that through her work as an organizer, she had heard countless stories about the early days of AIDS in Canada from black people and other people of color, but she is sure that none of them will ever be widely known, in part because people are still dealing with their trauma around the epidemic, and in part because no one is asking them to talk.

The stories of black people and their relationship with HIV/AIDS have been part of the epidemic from before the beginning, hiding in plain sight, overlooked and ignored. This is yet another way systemic racism works. The curators of Art AIDS America had an opportunity to change this, but they did not take it. Instead they added to the silence.

As the Tacoma Action Collective is trying to make clear, there is a violence in omission. What can be done to salvage Art AIDS America depends on what happens next and how carefully the museums and the curators listen to the protestors’ demands.

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