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AIDS, Art, Performance and a Fabulous Evening Downtown

June 6, 2017

If you scanned the room, you saw a man in a black ostrich feather Mohawk headdress, a woman in a pleated gold lamé caftan and a bearded guy in a hot-pink three-piece suit with matching hot-pink '60s bobble earrings. Yes, the crowd was edgily dressed to impress for VAVA VOOM, the 12th Annual Visual AIDS Vanguard Awards, held Monday, May 22, at Tribeca 360 in Manhattan.


Morgan Bassichis

Morgan Bassichis (Credit: Stephen Rosen)


Hosted by comic storyteller Morgan Bassichis, the Gilead-sponsored evening honored artists Zoe Leonard, Eric Rhein and Sur Rodney (Sur) for their longtime, tireless activism around HIV/AIDS.

The night began with a dynamic performance by visual artist and RuPaul's Drag Race Season 9 contestant Sasha Velour performing a gutsy rendition of "My Way." The song set the tone for the evening, providing the honorees a platform to talk about art, AIDS history and activism.

Each honoree spoke to their own history, how the HIV/AIDS crisis affected them and called them to action and how it continues to do so today. Rhein has used his life as a person with living with HIV to chronicle his own experience through photographic self-portraits. He also has created an ongoing series, Leaves, which honors the lives of more than 250 men and women who died of complications from AIDS. Sur Rodney (Sur) works as a curator, creating exhibitions related to art and AIDS. A member of Visual AIDS' board for more than a decade, he also has worked to establish its Archive Project, which digitizes the work of artists who have died of AIDS. Leonard, a feminist artist and queer activist who has been working in New York City since the 1980s, is the author of the well-known 1992 textual artwork I Want a President ....


Honorees Eric Rhein, Zoe Leonard, Brice Brown and Sur Rodney (Sur)

Honorees Eric Rhein, Zoe Leonard, Brice Brown and Sur Rodney (Sur) (Credit: Stephen Rosen)


A particularly poignant part of the evening came when Leonard called for guests to shout out the names of people lost to AIDS. Audience members cried out the names of friends, family members, famous musicians and artists, partners, boys and girls next door and everyone in between.

The evening also recognized artist Brice Brown for his inspiring support of Visual AIDS. Brown is a long-time member of the Visual AIDS family and has served on the board both as a member and as president.

In addition, Visual AIDS' executive director Nelson Santos was saluted with a standing ovation for his tireless work guiding and leading the organization for the past 17 years. Artist participants took the stage as Frederick Weston serenaded Nelson with "For Good" from the musical Wicked, leaving not a dry eye in the house. Santos announced his imminent retirement from Visual AIDS earlier this year, to be replaced by Esther McGowan.

The benefit also featured a silent online auction powered by Artsy, including works by Mark Beard, Eric Brown, Beth Campbell, Liz Collins, Louise Fishman, Tim Greathouse, Karen Heagle, Elana Herzog, Bill Jacobson, Leon Kelly, Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt, Glenn Ligon, Zachari Logan, Max-Carlos Martinez, Carrie Moyer, Yoko Ono, John Paradiso, Richard Renaldi, Eric Rhein, Dirk Rowntree, Donna Sharrett, Jean Shin, Guy Richards Smit, Betty Tompkins, Eric Wolf/Steed Taylor and Sasha Velour.

There was also a raffle with prizes that included a two-night stay at the Nomad Hotel paired with an original hummingbird wire drawing by Eric Rhein, a custom Polaroid portrait by artist Lucas Michael and a cut-and-color at Seagull Salon.


Kembra Pfahler and the Girls of Karen Black

Kembra Pfahler and the Girls of Karen Black (Credit: Stephen Rosen)


After the awards, feminist performance artist Narcissister dazzled the crowd and had everyone engaged with her powerful and potent work, which mixes music, masks, perception and provocation. Then came a forceful performance by The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black with Kembra Pfahler, a glam-punk band with a cult following. Their performance mixed elements of performance art, burlesque and science fiction/horror movies to create a truly unique shock-rock band.

The fantastic evening benefited Visual AIDS, an organization that utilizes art to fight AIDS by provoking dialogue, supporting HIV-positive artists and preserving a legacy -- because AIDS is not over. Visual AIDS continues to support artists, giving grants to HIV-positive creators to nurture their work and providing opportunities for artists living with HIV to have their work exhibited.

To find out more about Visual AIDS or to make a donation, visit them here.

Charles Sanchez is an openly gay, openly poz writer/director/actor living in New York City. He created the musical comedy web series, Merce, about an HIV+ guy living in the city.


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