As I worked through the images in the archives of Visual AIDS, I began to notice a fairly large number of religious images. I found this surprising, but also moving. As I thought about it, I realized that I had simply assumed that most GLBTQ artists, even if they had been raised in religious households, were likely to be secular in their outlook, having decisively moved away from the religious traditions in which they had been raised. As I worked my way through the archive, I realized that was simply not the case and I began to wonder why so many of the artists were drawn to religious themes and images.
Of course, one reason for their doing so is that some of the artists are religious, people of faith, with a strong spirituality which feeds their work.
However, I believe that there are some other things at work here. Religious images, whether positive or negative, are a rich visual source for many artists, especially if those images have been encountered during childhood. Often such images are the first strong images of suffering, death, danger, protection, holiness, evil, transcendence and the promise of an afterlife that one encounters. They are burned into the memory; and it makes sense that many GLBTQ people would want to revisit such images, even if they do so with a critical eye.
I see the religious images in the archive as an attempt by some GLBTQ artists to change the conversation, to transform the often negative and hostile information about gay people in the religious world into something more positive, and so to alter their own spirituality. These pieces seem like a conscious attempt to insert the GLBTQ experience into the existing traditions of religious iconography so that those traditions suddenly become a kind of new vocabulary, stripped of apology, the rhetoric of victimization, or gratuitous anger. Gay people's religious experiences, both positive and negative, have given them a critical eye and a certain distance from religious institutions. This has given them the freedom to interpret their religious experiences and memories in a new way, allowing them to define their faith and spirituality in their own way.
I see several examples of this in the collection, specifically images of suffering, holiness, sainthood and the central Christian symbol of the cross. A number of artists have taken those images and examined and reinterpreted them within the context of HIV and AIDS. By doing this, they have not only changed the iconography, they have also changed their understanding of themselves.
The iconography of suffering is a prominent theme in the collection and it appears in a number of pieces. There are both bold and subtle images of the suffering Christ. The crown of thorns is also an image that appears with some frequency. There are also scenes of martyrdom, a very old theme in Christian literature and art. The iconography of suffering before death seems to resonate powerfully for many gay artists and, I suspect, will always be a theme to be explored by many gay artists.
The traditional signs and symbols of sainthood are also often powerfully represented in the works in the archive. A man, naked except for his black boots, is shown with KS lesions and a halo; other gay men are represented in a style suggestive of Eastern Orthodox icons. Is this a way to honor the dead? Is this a way to redeem the pain and the suffering? Is this a way to claim a kind of sainthood for those who have suffered so much, while experiencing so much hostility and rejection?
Images of transcendence, a move towards paradise, are also represented. There is an image of a cross on which two embracing lovers have been crucified. The work transforms the traditional image of the cross into something new, while preserving many of the symbol's original meanings. Here, the cross becomes a critique of homophobia, an affirmation of same-sex love, and an assertion of the artist's belief in transcendence and salvation. Here, the love between gay men is something holy.
For me, this art represents the ongoing struggle on the part of many GLBTQ people to speak about their faith, to define their spirituality, while critiquing the aspects of their religious traditions that are homophobic and destructive. These artists are refusing to be simply secular.