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4 HIV-Positive Canadian Artists Paint a Picture of the Epidemic
Peter Carlyle-Gordge Takes a Look at HIV Art and HIV-Positive Artists in Canada

Summer 2012

Artistic expression can be many things. It can be educational or a call to action. It can be soothing or shocking. It can reflect our times and passions. At its heart, however, it is an expression of the individual artist and his or her engagement with life.

Artists have been involved in the HIV epidemic since its earliest days, when there was little to medicate and much to terrify. In the U.S., ACT-UP's artistic offshoot Gran Fury helped push the epidemic in the face of the establishment, reminding us all that SILENCE=DEATH. Slowly, politicians and people began to get the message: Stop pretending that AIDS isn't happening and start taking action against it. A too-complacent and bigoted world needed to be shocked into spending money, developing drugs and finding a cure.

Canadian HIV-positive artists and their HIV-negative allies were also addressing the epidemic. General Idea -- composed of Felix Partz, Jorge Zontal and AA Bronson -- is one of the country's best-known collectives of AIDS-activist artists. Active from 1967 to 1994, by which time both Partz and Zontal had died of AIDS, they were pioneers of early conceptual and media-based art.

General Idea addressed the AIDS crisis with work that included some 75 temporary public art projects from 1987 to 1994. Their major installation, "One Year of AZT/One Day of AZT," was featured at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and now resides in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. The irreverent collective is perhaps best known for its 1989 AIDS graphic, inspired by Robert Indiana's iconic LOVE image.

While art was drawing attention to the unfolding epidemic, HIV-positive artists were living with a disease that, at the time, was usually fatal. For many, art was a way of processing this grim future and honouring those who had died of AIDS. Bob Sirman, director of the Canada Council for the Arts in Ottawa, was involved in Canada's art community during those early years of the epidemic. Art can be therapeutic, he explains: "We all have great challenges to find meaning in life. I think art helps us to find a sense of order and meaning when huge challenges like HIV come up."

The introduction of effective antiretroviral therapy (ART) in 1996 meant that the virus could be brought under control and death could be averted. Art filled with rage, denial and sadness was replaced by life-affirming work. More recently, a new generation of HIV-positive artists is raising again the banner of arts-based activism, marching in the footsteps of their predecessors. The art of four people living with HIV, whose stories we share in the coming pages, illustrates this evolution of HIV and art in Canada over the past 30 years.


The Lazarus: Stephen Andrews

Stephen Andrews

The work of noted Toronto artist Stephen Andrews hangs in many collections and art galleries, including the National Gallery in Ottawa. Now it can also be seen in Toronto at the Trump International Hotel and Tower, which commissioned a 950-square-foot mosaic version of his work "A Small Part of Something Larger."

In his early days, Andrews often worked in monochrome and made collages, drawings and photographs. Then came AIDS. He was diagnosed in 1992 but thinks he may have been positive since 1985.

The year after his diagnosis, 15 of Andrews' friends died. In the same week Andrews lost his partner -- landscape artist, writer and theorist Alex Wilson -- and his studio mate Rob Flack, whose work in the period leading up to his death focused on vibrant depictions of the chakras and other internalized healing energies.

Andrews himself wasn't in good shape. "My health went off the rails," he says. "I was losing my sight, had about 40 T cells and weighed about 100 pounds." But his "glass-half-full" personality kept him philosophical about it all: "I figured I had a good body of work and I was resigned to the idea that the end might be soon. I was ready to go." And then it occurred to him that he was basically just waiting for an appointment with death.

His art kept him going and kept him in the present. "Denial was my friend and I stayed on today's page, not the future or past." Indeed, the pages that Andrews found himself drawn to at this time were the Proud Lives obituary pages from Toronto's Xtra! newspaper. These commemorative photos would become the starting point for his "Facsimile" series (see image, below).

Stephen Andrews, Facsimile

"Facsimile" series, 1990-1993 (detail).
At the core of this series are images taken from the obituaries of young men and women who had died of AIDS. Before being rendered on wax tablets, the images were faxed and photocopied, slowly erasing the identity of each person, similar to the way that AIDS was erasing large swaths of the community. "Those directly affected by the pandemic used the work as a memorial," says artist Stephen Andrews. "Some people came to an art gallery for the first time just to see the portrait of their loved ones."

"It was produced from 1990 until 1993, during the time when many people were dying weekly and there was still widespread ignorance and fear about the disease," Andrews says. "It was also prior to the construction of the AIDS memorial behind the 519 Community Centre, so my intention was to memorialize my friends, colleagues and the community that was stigmatized." Andrews says his art was never intended to shock people. "I find that [shock] is a less-than-useful strategy to convince an audience to engage in dialogue."

When ART became available, Andrews experienced what many at the time referred to as the Lazarus effect -- he came back to health from near death. He regained his energy and it seemed as though life's train wreck might have a happy ending after all. "When my health returned, I began working in colour," Andrews says. "Suddenly there was promise of a future and I wanted it to be in Technicolour" -- similar to the moment in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy is blown out of Kansas into Oz and the film turns from black and white to colour.

Andrews' work spans 30 years and has been exhibited in Canada, the U.S., Brazil, Scotland, France and Japan. Describing the evolution of his ideas over that time, Andrews says, "Generally, there is a news story behind a given body of work -- be that AIDS, war or advances in surveillance technologies. The ideas embodied in these stories are like irritants and the work accretes around them like pearls."


The Community Voice: Tiko Kerr

Tiko Kerr

Artist Tiko Kerr's work evokes the spirit of Van Gogh and Dali. Colour and light are primary in the Vancouver artist's vision but they take second place to his strong intuitive sense of movement and spatial orientation. For Kerr, everything is alive. His buildings lean and warp and threaten to topple, while streets heave. The colour is intense and richly pigmented.

Kerr spent his time between studios in Australia and Vancouver until he was diagnosed with HIV in 1985. "It was a huge shock and of course there were no drugs, not even AZT, to treat it," he says. "I came back to Canada and got great care at St. Paul's Hospital." His art served to keep him going, even as his health slowly declined. His goal became to accomplish at least one thing every day. At one point, Kerr admits, that goal was simply to get out of bed.

Today he has a renewed perspective and has learned how to raise his voice when needed. In 2005, Kerr took on the Canadian government, demanding access to experimental antiretroviral drugs that were his only chance of survival. The government initially said no, but after 10 months of a very public campaign, Health Canada reversed its decision in Kerr's favour. Access to those experimental drugs allowed Kerr to return to health and to creating his art.

Tiko Kerr, Meditations on Compassion

"Meditations on Compassion," 2006.
The painting depicts a vacant room that artist Tiko Kerr became familiar with at St. Paul's Hospital in Vancouver during a period of illness. The only movement in the room, he recalls, was the blue glow of the flickering television. Kerr began the piece at a time when his anger and frustration were peaking, after 10 months of struggling with Health Canada for access to two experimental drugs. "The working title was 'My Government is Trying to Kill Me,' because if I was to succumb to AIDS, I wanted to leave a record of this injustice," he says. "In January 2006, I received news that the drugs would be available, and with a cooler head, I renamed the painting."

Kerr says that much of his HIV-focused work since his revival in 2005 involves psychological portrayals of his hospital treatments (see image, right) as well as a series of self-portraits that were painted on the vast accumulated medical paraphernalia -- pill bottles, syringes and vials -- that is a byproduct of antiretroviral therapy.

During the more than three decades that Kerr has been an artist, his work has become a complement to the task of dealing with HIV. "When the virus was strong," he explains, "my work weakened, became darker, with quieter themes and solitary scenarios. Then, when a new medical regimen kick-started my immune system, my work soared in intensity, complexity, confidence and scale. The two entities have each become half of a new method of working and digesting the realities of my life."

While Kerr's art-making may be influenced by HIV, his art is not limited to it. "Since overcoming the situation with Health Canada and especially since my community has been so demonstrative in supporting my work and me, there has been a shift to my art becoming more and more a vehicle of social justice."

Kerr's series "You Are Here," for example, explored the notion of what Vancouverites call home. The paintings described places on English Bay, shopping carts under expressways, a woman who lives in her BMW, as well as residential buildings in which the renters have faced "renoviction" (a term that has sprung up in Vancouver to describe landlords' attempts to evict tenants on the premise of renovating units before dramatically raising the rents).

"My goal has always been to represent honestly the time in which I live and to give life to images and issues that might resonate with my community, the community that came out to support me when I needed them so badly," he says.

Tiko Kerr and Stephen Andrews survived a time when many other HIV-positive Canadian artists did not. In addition to General Idea's Felix Partz and Jorge Zontal, the art community in Canada also lost to AIDS many other vital members, including Aboriginal ballet dancer Rene Highway, artist Tim Jocelyn, poet and academic Michael Lynch and Newfoundland comedian Tommy Sexton.


The Radical: Jean-Pierre Pérusse

Jean-Pierre Perusse

A new generation of HIV-positive artists has been shaped by the current medical and social realities of the virus -- longer lifespans for people with HIV, but in a society where the virus is forgotten, ignored or still stigmatized.

Montreal's Jean-Pierre Pérusse, a film and TV actor with training in multimedia, martial arts and dance, has a fondness for artistic propaganda that shocks. Long active in the world of HIV and AIDS, he says he likes to "bang on closed doors" and bring people out of their ignorance. He does not believe in what he calls "the victim thing." He says, "I want people to see that you can live with HIV and have a purpose in life."

Jean-Pierre Perusse, Betty Crocker

"Betty Crocker," 2008.
In this campy piece, Quebec dancer Cynthia Milaire is a classic '50s housewife doing a most ordinary thing -- feeding her baby. But the sanitized kitchen and rubber dishwashing gloves belie a fear of infection. "Our intent was to show the stigmatization of even the youngest living with HIV and the paranoia of catching it," explains artist Jean-Pierre Pérusse.

Diagnosed in 1996, Pérusse was shocked at the reactions of people in the acting world when he disclosed his status. For one production, he recalls, "I was told that they could not use me, because there was a kissing scene. I was angry and hurt by that rejection. People were so ignorant."

In 1999, Pérusse founded Radical 5, a company that brings together artists and technicians from all backgrounds, mixing traditional theatre with new media, to create videos, shows and mega-events. He has created and directed many theatrical dance shows for the Bad Boy Club of Montreal (BBCM), which holds large-scale party events, the profits of which are donated to charitable causes, including HIV.

His shows for BBCM have often featured HIV. "At first, I incorporated the AIDS theme in the main show, often as the villain that we were fighting." In the 1999 edition, Pérusse set out to reflect music and dance from the time of French King Louis XIV to today. "The AIDS era was marked by 'Why' by  Bronski Beat, preceded by 'Love to Love You Baby' by Donna Summer and 'Sexcrime (Nineteen Eighty-Four)' by the Eurythmics."

In 2008, Pérusse teamed up with Montreal photographer Bob Hendricks to produce Per7eption, a poster series of seven photographs that represent how people with HIV perceive society and how society perceives them (see image, right). For example, the poster "Bond 00+" depicts Montreal DJ Mark Anthony posing as James Bond with a martini glass and shaker full of pills and a gun on the table in front of him. The poster's intent, Pérusse says, was to show the public perception of HIV as a deadly weapon. "It was also to show that the James Bond figure represents how an HIV-positive person feels sometimes about the dilemma of living."

Pérusse has changed meds many times and has had many side effects. He recently found a combination that works and gives him new energy. Sadly, his partner gave up the struggle last year and drowned himself. "Art expresses who I am and it can help with healing," he adds. "It gives purpose to life and you can get lost in it."


The New Old-School Activist: Jessica Whitbread

Jessica Whitbread

Now studying at York University in Toronto, Jessica Whitbread was diagnosed with HIV almost a decade ago, at age 21. Like some of her fellow activists and artists at the beginning of the epidemic, Whitbread takes a blunt approach to what it is like to live with HIV and believes strongly in the role of art to both shock and educate.

Jessica Whitbread, Fuck Positive Women

"Fuck Positive Women," 2011 "Sometimes you wake people up by provoking them," says co-creator Jessica Whitbread. "Our aim was to make people realize that a woman may be positive but she is also a mother, a daughter, a lover, a friend, a wife, a human being."

Needlework may imply a traditionally feminine and passive pursuit, but the message is defiant and empowering. "Why can't we express an urgent, horny, powerful and open message about positive women and sexuality?" asks Allyson Mitchell, who collaborated with Whitbread on the piece. "Why aren't women allowed to be subjects of their sexuality rather than objects?"

Whitbread put her belief into action when she collaborated with queer feminist artist Allyson Mitchell to create a poster as part of a 2011 Day With(out) Art campaign led by AIDS ACTION NOW! The attention-grabbing "Fuck Positive Women" (see image, right) was one of a series of posters created by local Toronto artists to highlight current issues around HIV. Merging the worlds of art and activism, the controversial posters were plastered across Toronto during the weeks leading up to December 1 (World AIDS Day) to provoke discussion and dialogue.

While the reality of living with HIV has changed since the early days of the epidemic, the art created by Whitbread and Pérusse carries echoes from that time: It reminds a too-complacent world that HIV still affects many lives. "We are not losing creative artists on the same scale as 15 years ago, but the impact on individual lives has been immense," says the Canada Council's Bob Sirman. "HIV has impacted almost everyone, not just artists living with it."

Sirman says that art can be a medium for people to try to make meaning from what appears to be random and chaotic. "Whether it's painting, theatre, writing, cinema or dance, art can be a powerful means of framing and expressing life's narrative and making sense and meaning from it all. If art gives purpose to the artist, then, of course, it is healing as well."

Winnipegger Peter Carlyle-Gordge is a former writer for Macleans, Time Canada and The Financial Post. He has also worked as a CBC Radio broadcaster and producer and is a former UK correspondent for The Toronto Star. In the 1980s he was president of the Village Clinic (now Nine Circles Community Health Centre), a key player in the HIV epidemic in Manitoba.


The Positive Side of Art

The Positive Side has a long history of celebrating HIV-positive Canadian artists. "Not Your Average Joe" in the Spring/Summer 2005 issue featured an interview with celebrated Vancouver artist Joe Average, who created the "One World, One Hope" image for the XI International AIDS Conference held in his hometown in 1996 -- the same conference that announced the results of the first effective anti-HIV treatments. Canada Post later used his iconic image on a stamp.

The Art Positi+ve column that runs in every issue of The Positive Side shares the stories of artists living with HIV and has featured Montrealers Shayo and Laurette Lévy, Haligonian Simon Thwaites, Aboriginal artists Ron Horsefall and Wabishki Myeengun, plus many others.




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