In March, Hillary Clinton mistakenly rewrote American history when she thanked the Reagans (particularly Nancy) for helping to start “a national conversation” about HIV and AIDS. It took mere seconds for fury to ignite and just a couple of hours for Clinton to apologize for telling what many knew to be a lie. History matters and must always be told accurately.
In “Art AIDS America,” a traveling exhibition originally co-curated by Rock Hushka and Jonathan David Katz for the Tacoma Art Museum and currently at the Bronx Museum, we are reminded of not only the silence of the Reagans, but the bigotry of others in elected office as well as many members of the clergy — and the deaths that came as a direct result of both. The exhibit description, printed high on a white wall in the lobby, specifies its intentions: “For too long, we have considered art about AIDS as a tragic, closed chapter in the history of American art.” The message: The worst of the disease may have passed for most, but the story hasn’t ended, and it’s vital we continue to engage — honestly, thoughtfully.
The exhibit includes some 125 works — paintings, photographs, sculptures, mixed-media pieces, videos, and prints — loosely divided into four categories: Body, Spirit, Activism, and Camouflage. That last focuses on the challenges many artists faced in creating personally relevant work after legislation passed in 1989 that restricted federal funding for art dealing with homosexuality and AIDS.
So it’s unsurprising that many of the works approach their themes subtly. Brett Reichman’s And the Spell Was Broken Somewhere Over the Rainbow, for instance, is adorned in the colors of the rainbow and features three large clocks: The oil painting makes references to Oz while alluding to the new reality that San Francisco, ravaged by the AIDS crisis, could no longer be viewed solely as a land of enchantment.
Still, the most striking works are the bluntest. Luis Cruz Azaceta’s Babies With AIDS, an acrylic painting, was inspired by news stories about infants who were born with HIV and abandoned. The images of those babies, superimposed on an American flag, are an instant, infuriating reminder of how hatred and fear are so easily transferred.
Likewise, a work by Jonathan Horowitz elicits an immediate response: Two New York Post covers, one announcing the death of Reagan, the other an image of Nancy kissing his Stars and Stripes–covered casket, sit above the image of an unidentified man, a victim of AIDS. The man looks like a skeleton and Reagan a saint, though mythology will never completely hide which may rightly be viewed as a monster. The same goes for Judy Chicago’s Homosexual Holocaust, Study for Pink Triangle Torture, which incorporates the Nazi symbol for gay men in the concentration camps.
There are, of course, instances of brightness and light, Kia Labeija’s 24 chief among them. The artist, born HIV-positive, offers a trio of photos of herself posing in various parts of her apartment. Though she has struggled with the disease in her childhood, Labeija seems in these pictures, sitting on her couch, content, gorgeous, unbroken. Similarly, John Arsenault’s There Never Was a Woman of My Dreams shows the artist in a tub with another man, a simple, frank reminder that part of living is enjoying life in all its facets.
The exhibit appears expansive, but one failing is its noticeable dearth of black artists. There are only eight — and three of them were reportedly just now added to the Bronx leg of the show, following a public outcry earlier in the year. One of the welcome additions is Marlon Riggs, whose 1989 documentary Tongues Untied fuses fiction, poetry, music, and performance to give voice to the uniqueness of black gay identity.
The film makes constant, powerful reference to being silenced. But fittingly, toward its end, you hear, “Every time we fuck, we win.” Its inclusion in the exhibit is vital, as the film makes clear that despite the burdens of being marginalized, of being constantly excluded, there is joy. In one’s self. In one’s community. In owning one’s sexuality.
“Art AIDS America” isn’t always easy viewing: It tells a tale of pain as much as it does one of progress. But Riggs, who died in 1994, had it right. AIDS has had crippling effects on the LGBTQ community, but it has not destroyed us, or our urges. We win as we continue living.
‘Art AIDS America’
Bronx Museum of the Arts
1040 Grand Concourse, Bronx
Through October 23