Art, AIDS, America, and Erasure

I knew I was standing in front of David Wojnarowicz’s Untitled (Hujar Dead) because the placard said so, but I didn’t see the portrait I knew. Puzzled, I scanned the gallery wall, looking for the photo Wojnarowicz took of his friend and onetime lover, the photographer Peter Hujar, moments after Hujar’s death from AIDS. It’s a black-and-white close-up of his face, slack-jawed, eyelids heavy but not yet closed — a profoundly unsettling photo, and one that’s hard to miss. I stepped closer to the collage in front of me. It looked like Wojnarowicz’s work, with text overlying a riot of images. I leaned closer to read it, the type so tense and precise you could almost hear the angry hail of Wojnarowicz’s fingers on the keys. I recognized the passage from his book Close to the Knives “I wake up every morning in this killing machine called america and I’m carrying this rage like a blood filled egg” [sic] — and as I read the familiar words I realized, with an audible start, that Hujar’s dead face was right beneath them. I hadn’t seen the collage version before.

I was visiting the Tacoma Art Museum (TAM) in Tacoma, WA, to see Art AIDS America, a “groundbreaking,” nationally praised exhibition testifying to the dramatic and defining impact of AIDS on American art. I have a personal connection to Tacoma, and an academic interest in the art of HIV/AIDS, so I looked forward to my visit for months. But in the time between booking my ticket and standing before Untitled (Hujar Dead), my excitement had curdled. I walked through the gallery moved in fragments, suspicious of the picture of the whole. I felt, actually, as though I’d just realized I’d been staring very hard at something deeply disturbing, and hadn’t seen it at all.

And the “something” was this: in November, about a month before I visited TAM, Tacoma artists and activists began drawing attention to the fact that the curators’ purported effort to “explore the whole spectrum of artistic responses to AIDS” was dangerously and unforgivably limited: of the 107 artists in exhibition, only four were black — a deeply disproportionate representation of the racial demographics of HIV/AIDS.

Photo from the die-in protest at TAM on December 17. Courtesy of TAC.

Photo from the die-in protest at TAM on December 17. Courtesy of TAC.

On December 17, a group of activists from the Tacoma Action Collective (TAC) staged a “die-in” in the gallery to protest the exhibition’s lack of black artists. In a press release, TAC reported that while Art AIDS America “largely displays HIV as a white gay crisis from the 80’s,” it is black Americans who represent 40% of the death toll from AIDS; black trans* women who are at the highest risk of HIV infection; and black Americans under 24 who constitute 57% of new HIV diagnoses. “To create a project about HIV in the US and discount the nearly 270,000 Black lives lost in this epidemic is not only grossly negligent from a historical standpoint, but contributes to the lack of visibility and lack of public concern that keeps the epidemic at large,” the release states. This is particularly irresponsible, TAC pointed out, given the powerful historical role of art movements in AIDS activism.

With the protest, TAC demanded three things of TAM: that the museum hire more black staff at all levels of leadership; that museum personnel undergo training in Undoing Institutional Racism (UIR); and that Art AIDS America be revised to include more black artists before the show tours nationally this year.

"Icarian I Incline," by Daniel Goldstein. Image courtesy of queer-arts.org.

“Icarian I / Incline,” by Daniel Goldstein. Image courtesy of queer-arts.org.

This news was fresh when I walked into the gallery at TAM in late December. I was disturbed by the protesters’ clearly legitimate criticisms, but I was also invested in seeing work from an era and a context that has come to mean a great deal to me. And so I did: I was grateful to see works by Nan Goldin, Félix González-Torres, Jenny Holzer and others. I was pleased to note that Keith Haring’s drawings, which always look a little flat and dated to me on the page, vibrate with energy and life in person. And Daniel Goldstein’s Icarian I/Incline, the framed, stretched leather from a Castro workout bench imprinted with a ghostly, man-shaped sweat silhouette, stopped me in my tracks.

The curators’ thesis about how, exactly, AIDS changed American art didn’t strike me, though, until I read co-curator Jonathan David Katz’s essay in the exhibition catalogue. Katz argues that AIDS forced a generation of artists to “think about their representational practices first and foremost strategically” in order to “circumvent, confront, or flout a series of newly codified prohibitions against any representation of AIDS or same-sex desire.” These artists pioneered what Katz calls “poetic postmodernism,” a strategy that allowed artists to insert complex, personal, and political meaning into their work underneath a veneer of adherence to postmodern constraints against representations of authorial identity or anything faintly political. “Our authors are dead,” Katz concludes, “and a horrifying percentage died twice.”

But all this sounds a bit hollow and drily academic in the wake of the protests, given that Katz’s authors (“ours,” apparently) are canonical and therefore from a narrow and overrepresented demographic. In an excellent article on the exhibition and the protests, Ted Kerr reports that “exhibitions like Art AIDS America ensure that what Cindy Patton has called the ‘queer paradigm’ of HIV remains intact” at the expense of representing the true scope 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,” he writes.

TAC made that racism visible, and obliged TAM to be accountable for its role in it. They also sparked coverage in national outlets like The New Inquiry and Artforum, and recently the New York Times Magazine contextualized the protests in a broader discussion of racist, sexist, and heterosexist erasure. I’m grateful for this. But when I tried to salvage my own experience of Art AIDS America by reasoning that the protests were a necessary counterbalance to the exhibition that made it an imperfect whole, I felt like a TAM official in damage control mode, telling the Tacoma News Tribune that the protests were evidence TAM achieved its goal of “[inviting] conversation around HIV/AIDS” in the community. It’s true, but it feels disingenuous. It’s not enough.

"Mourning Sickness," by Kia Labeija. Courtesy of TAM website.

“Mourning Sickness,” by Kia Labeija. Courtesy of TAM website.

By early January, TAM had publicly committed to meeting the protesters’ demands. But while the News Tribune reported that TAC representatives and TAM leadership had come to a productive agreement, not everyone was placated: notably, Kia Labeija, one of the four black artists in the show. On January 18, Labeija posted a statement on Facebook that opened with “Dear Art AIDS America, your white walls can kiss my black ass,” and reported that she would acknowledge “but in no way accept” the formal apology she received from co-curator Rock Hushka. Labeija, a photographer whose colorful and declarative self-portraits were used in promotional materials for the exhibition, also detailed her very negative experience working with Hushka in an earlier Facebook post in support of the protesters.

Six weeks removed from my visit to TAM, I’m still reconciling my own experience of the exhibition, and my own essentially historical interest in the art of AIDS, with the protest and its implications. But Art AIDS America is moving on: it reopens at the Zuckerman Museum of Art outside Atlanta on February 20. According to Arts ATL, Zuckerman is expanding the roster of artists to be more diverse and adding new programming. “These aren’t solutions to the controversy surrounding the exhibit, they’re points of inclusion,” said museum director Justin Rabideau. But in the age of Black Lives Matter, and the painful, ugly awakening of white consciousness to its persistent erasure of black life and death, maybe these — imperfectly deployed, and too late — points of inclusion are the solution after all.

 

References

Dambrot, Shana Nys. “Art AIDS America: An Impressive Exhibition and Important Curatorial Event.” The Huffington Post, 13 July 2015. Web. Accessed 9 January 2016.

Graves, Jen. “Tacoma Art Museum’s Art AIDS America is a Messy Masterpiece that Reframes the Past 40 Years of American Art. NBD.” The Stranger. 7 October 2015. Web. Accessed 31 January 2016.

Jordan, Christopher. “‘You’ll have to wait for the next one’: Rock Hushka’s case for the exclusion of Black artists from Art AIDS America.” Post Defiance blog, 17 December 2015. Web. Accessed 31 January 2016.

Katz, Jonathan David. “How AIDS Changed American Art,” in Art AIDS America. Eds. Jonathan David Katz and Rock Hushka. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2015. 24-45.

Kerr, Ted. “A History of Erasing Black Artists and Bodies from the AIDS Conversation.” Hyperallergic.com. 31 December 2015. Accessed 18 January 2016

Kerr, Ted. “Erasing Black AIDS Histories.” The New Inquiry. 1 January 2016. Web. Accessed 2 February 2016.

Ponnekanti, Rosemary. ‘Art AIDS America’ explores how art changed an epidemic.’ The Tacoma News Tribune. 26 September 2015. Web. Accessed 14 January 2016.

Ponnekanti, Rosemary. “Tacoma Art Museum faces protest over lack of diversity in ‘Art AIDS America.’” The Tacoma News Tribune. 20 December 2015. Web. Accessed 13 January 2016.

Ponnekanti, Rosemary. “Tacoma Art Museum commits to more racial diversity, dialogue.” 7 January 2016. Web. Accessed 2 February 2016.

“Press Release: Die In Protest 12/17 at Tacoma Art Museum.” Tacoma Action Collective. stoperasingblackpeoplenow.tumblr.com. Web. Accessed 2 February 2016.

Relyea, Laura. “The Zuckerman Museum of Art brings ‘Art AIDS America’ to Atlanta, but not without addendum.” Arts ATL. 27 January 2016. Web. Accessed 7 February 2016.

Sehgal, Parul. “Fighting ‘Erasure.’” The New York Times Magazine. 2 February 2016. Web. Accessed 2 February 2016.

“Art AIDS America.” Tacoma Art Museum website. No date. Accessed 2 February 2016.

Tacoma Museum Meets with Protesters Who Staged ‘Die-In’ to Protest Lack of Artists of Color in AIDS Exhibition.” Artforum. 6 January 2016. Web. Accessed 2 February 2016.

Upchurch, Michael. “Controversial ‘Hide/Seek’ appears at Tacoma Art Museum.” The Seattle Times. 25 March 2012. Web. Accessed 11 January 2016.

Wojnarowicz, David. Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration. New York: Vintage, 1991.