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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)

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

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! 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.

*   *   *

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! 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

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?

*   *   *

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)

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)

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.

Ted Kerr

Canadian-born Theodore (ted) Kerr is a Brooklyn-based writer and organizer whose work focuses on HIV/AIDS. He was the programs manager with Visual AIDS. He is currently at Union Theological...

17 replies on “A History of Erasing Black Artists and Bodies from the AIDS Conversation”

  1. There are Black-centric/owned galleries here in the corn belt so there must be many more on the left coast given population demographics. Wouldn’t they be personnel sourcing opportunities? Who among the demonstrators is trained for a museum role? Grievance mongering is not skills credentials.

  2. As one who lived through the worst of the crisis, I have to admit this puts me in a somewhat difficult quandary. When AIDS reared its ugly head in the gay male community, the black community wanted nothing to do with us — it was a “white man’s disease”, we were told, quite pointedly… just as activist lesbians didnt want to work with us because it was a “guy thing”. Attempts at inclusion beyond our demographic were dismissed because everyone else thought themselves somehow immune as long as the victims remained gay white men.

    Of course we know that blacks are disproportionately victims of this — I’ve heard stats that suggest that as much as 20% of the African population may be infected with an HIV strain slightly different from the one that decimated the gay male community. We were aware of it then and tried to employ that as a means of getting more inclusion in the AIDS networks that were being set up throughout the 80s… but no one listened and no one responded and ultimately. at that time, no one seemed to care. We were on our own with this. The fact that the only other large demographic bieng hit with this was drug users just cemented the idea that we should be avoided at all costs — to the point where a member of Congress infamously said he thought it would be a great idea to round up all the gay men in the US and put them in a concentration camp somewhere in Montana, so as not to infect the rest of the nation. This was our reality, folks. As far as larger society was concerned, gay white men were a disposable demographic that needed to be eradicated for the good of the nation.

    So I”m not sure how I should respond to artists suddenly saying they were part of the action when, in reality, they came along almost a decade or more later. We’d lost thousands by then, tens of thousands, through government inaction (Thank you, Mr Reagan, for making us a joke in your press conferences) and societal estrangement. Everything that was accomplished happened because we worked our asses off to make it happen — creating information campaigns, building our own hospices, throwing freaking bake sales to bring in some kind of money for research (as absurd as that seems now, and yet there we are) — because at the time NO ONE CARED EXCEPT US.

    So to those asking, Where are the black people?, my response is, Where were they *then*? And lest one think I’m playing the race card here, I put that same question out to all other parts of society, regardless of gender, race, age, any definer you wish. Cut through it all, and the fact remains: we were in this by ourselves.

    1. I think you’ve sufficiently explained why the curating is the way it is (and likely right). The historical context in which this art being shown was made just isn’t what the author imagines or wishes it was. This is most clear when the curator was urged to change the normative definition of art: “uh…how about house music?”

    2. This is about a contemporary show. “The curators of Art AIDS America had an opportunity to change this, but they did not take it. Instead they added to the silence.” By your reasoning, we should not try to fight racism, or poverty, or gender inequity. Now that you’ve aired your perspective of the past, please acknowledge the racism of the present. As for Reagan, he destroyed California’s social systems when he was gov. and then worked on the nation’s. Yes, a total schmuck. If your response (a sweeping and biased response) and the art world’s response remain unchanged we face another millenia of resentments influencing public policy and art rather than a more enlightened effort for the public good..

      1. Sorry, but no, I am not saying we should not try to “fight racism or poverty or gender equality”, so kindly stop trying to be a SJW and ram words into my mouth. What I *am* saying — and what you seem determined to ignore — is that in the beginning of this, WE WERE ON OUR GODDAM OWN… and now everyone wants to claim they had some kind of important statement to make well after the fact, like a bunch of Monday morning quarterbacks who had the opportunity — and the OBLIGATION — to be there with us AT THE BEGINNING AND WERENT. That is YOUR guilt to work on, not mine, so I suggest you deal with it.

        Yes, I’m angry about this. We knew back then how this disease was affecting those outside our demographic but no one wanted to listen, let alone help in the struggle to combat it. And to just write all that off with “oh, this is a contemporary show” is a complete and utter slap in the face of all those who did what they could to combat this, even as it was killing those around us, even as folks like you were ignoring it because you thought you had no dog in the fight.

        There is a classic editorial cartoon that appeared in the SF Chronicle about five or six years into this. Three panels. Panel 1 headline: “AIDS HITS GAY MEN”, and it’s an image of one lonely little researcher in his lab. Panel 2: ‘AIDS HITS DRUG USERS”, with the same image. Panel three shows a lab in chaos, scores of researchers crashing into each other. The headline: “AIDS HITS SUBURBAN CHILD”. Harsh, but damn true, and your response shows how little was learned from it.

        If you find my response “biased”, all I can say in response is that you were clearly not there at the beginning, and now you choose to rewrite history to suit your own ends. You wonder where these resentments start? They begin with cavalier little dismissals like your own — “oh, he’s just some old cis gay white guy… who cares about *that*?”. Perhaps you should work on that.

          1. Your half-assed apology will not bring my friends back. Maybe you should consider that the next time you get on your soap box about “bias”.

          2. Can we please be civil? I know this is a heated topic (and a very very important one of life and death) but I am going to assume we are all working in the interest of getting to the truth and a way forward. Let’s not lose sight of that goal.

          3. Some people just are not interested in the truth, not if it runs counter to their own expectations. Let’s not lose sight of that either.

            The truth of this is a hard mirror for some people to face. Yes, we all lost a lot of friends and loved ones, but dammit it wasnt for lack of trying to get the word out to people who just did not want to listen. And that’s what upsets me about our friend here, who seems to think all that should just be dismissed as relatively unimportant.

            Leaving this conversation because it’s triggering too many really ugly memories.

          4. I’m working to understand why the names of black artists “erased” from the history are not produced by the author or anyone the author cites. I am assuming it’s because these artists are black swans and no one wants to admit it.

          5. I am not apologizing. We are probably the same age and you know nothing about my history. I am simply supporting the notion that black artists should be allowed in the exhibit. My friends who died would be in favor of that. Your outright meanness reflects only on you. Not the dead. I am out of this conversation. from the article: “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.”

  3. Ted, excellent article and analysis, thank you. The “AIDS Crisis Revisitation”, as you’ve labeled it, also might encompass the rejuvenation of the PLHIV self-empowerment movement, with the growth of national networks of PLHIV such as the Positive Women’s Network-USA, Sero Project and a number of statewide and local efforts.

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