June 27, 2013
As part of our series NOT OVER, Visual AIDS asked artists in the La MaMa exhibition three questions about the ongoing AIDS crisis. The first question is taken directly from artist Vincent Chevalier's work, "So ... when did you figure out you had AIDS?," 2010. It is left to the artist to decipher the meaning of the question, to decide if it is a question about their status, how AIDS functions in the world, or both. Overall, the goal of the questions is to get at the complexity of HIV/AIDS -- understanding it as a virus in people's bodies, an assemblage that has changed the world, and as an ever-evolving phenomenon.
When did you figure out you had AIDS?
Even though I tested positive for HIV in 1986, the concept was vague and surreal to me. It didn't feel as if it related to me. I was watching my friends die and I knew they had AIDS, but somehow it wasn't about me. It wasn't until I got clean in 1991 that I realized I had AIDS and I started making art about HIV. The piece that is in this show was the first piece I ever made about HIV, and it was like a dam broke. All of my emotions, my fears, as well as my rage came out about HIV. Making art about HIV was very cathartic. It showed me things I was feeling through the process of making art that I didn't know I was feeling.
The process of learning to make art through and about my feelings stays with me today. Though I've been an artist since I was a baby, making art about HIV was a way for me to integrate my emotions with my politics. It taught me to embrace and be proud of the fact that I'm a person living with and surviving HIV (so far).
What does NOT OVER mean to you?
I feel profoundly connected to the phrase "not over." I've used it in my work and I live it everyday. AIDS for me is not over. Not over because I'll always remember the friends I've lost. Not over because my health is so precarious. Not over because not only are millions of people still living with HIV/AIDS, but many don't even have access to treatment. Not over because so many are still getting infected. And not over because the stigma of having HIV is just as bad as ever -- maybe even worse.
There's a lot of media hype about HIV being over, or being just another manageable chronic illness. But AIDS is not. It is painful, complicated, life threatening and a drag to live with physically. AIDS will never be over in our memories and in history. We have lost and continue to lose some of the brightest stars of our generations.
What is AIDS in 25 years?
I want to think that AIDS in 25 years will be a lot of interesting art to look at, a blurb in a history book, and a disease that no longer exists. With the high rate of transmission, coupled with how little politicians are thinking about AIDS now, I worry that that's not true. With luck and grace the pharmaceutical companies will continue making enough money off of people with AIDS and HIV to continue their research. We all become resistant to specific HIV meds and many people like me don't have a lot of options right now.
More importantly, HIV and AIDS will devastate more and more marginalized people. The fastest growing rate of new infection, and of early death in the U.S. is among African American women. All over the world, poor people don't have access to prevention materials, or treatment. It breaks my heart to think it, but I don't know if AIDS will be gone in 25 years. The incentive for finding a cure is less than the profit driven incentive for expanding treatment options. Hopefully the world will change, and people will become a priority again.
The interviews will be collected on our Tumblr site: NOT OVER INTERVIEWS.