An alluring, warm spring New York night in May is perfect for a little VAVA VOOM.
The 13th annual Visual AIDS Vanguard Awards (VAVA VOOM) was held at the swanky Tribeca 360 in New York City on May 21, 2018. The gala fundraiser honors the careers and achievements of artists and community members who through their work, talent and dedication strengthen the cultural history of art, AIDS and activism in our community. This year also marks Visual AIDS' 30th anniversary of supporting artists living with HIV/AIDS. It's an event that, perhaps because it's put on by artists, always manages to be surprising, delightful, and a little kooky.
When I walked in, the first person I saw was dressed in full-on Louis XVI fabulousness, complete with powdered wig, tights, and even a tres chic beauty mark. In attendance were artists, HIV activists and supporters decked in everything from conservative business attire to bedazzled jackets and colorful gowns (some even on women), and the crowd included drag queens, bohemians, and even a woman sporting a tutu black-sequined Bob Mackie-esque ensemble.
I joined the fabulous people for a cocktail hour where we mingled among superb paintings, photos and sculptures up for silent auction. After a refreshing beverage and a few hors d'oeuvres (don't mind if I do!), we were ushered into the main room, and the program started. The evening was emceed by comedic performer Morgan Bassichis and NY-based poet, writer and performance artist Pamela Sneed.
R&B funk rock singer/songwriter and founding member of LaBelle (heard of a little tune called "Lady Marmalade"?) Nona Hendryx opened up the fundraiser with a pumping, crowd-pleasing version of her solo hit song "Transformations." Besides an extensive and glamorous career, Hendryx has also been a longtime champion of HIV causes. Her performance was a perfect way to kick off the glitzy gala.
This year's Vanguard Award honorees were Lyle Ashton Harris, Thomas Allen Harris, and Steed Taylor. All three honorees have contributed amazing and innovative works in their careers, and have used their creative talents to put a spotlight on the causes of HIV/AIDS, from the early days of the crisis through today.
Lyle Ashton Harris has worked in photographic media, collage, installation and performance. His works have been exhibited all around the world, in notable museums such as New York's Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Whitney Museum of American Art, and most recently, Museum of Modern Art. He is currently associate professor of art and art education at New York University. Harris created Selections from the Ektachrome Archive, 1986-1996 for ALTERNATE ENDINGS, the Visual AIDS video program distributed internationally for Day With(out) Art 2014.
Born in the Bronx and raised in New York City and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, Thomas Allen Harris is an award-winning filmmaker and producer. He began his career as a photographer before turning to producing for public television, for which he garnered several awards including two Emmy nominations. His numerous awards include a 2015 NAACP Image Award, the United States Artist Award, as well as a Tribeca Film Institute's Nelson Mandela Award. His introspective and thoughtful films have received critical acclaim, and have been screened at such renowned festivals as Sundance, Berlin, and OutFest, as well as being broadcast on PBS, the Sundance Channel and more.
Both artists have included in their work the discourse between HIV and race, highlighting the fact that HIV/AIDS in communities of color has largely been ignored.
The third VAVA honoree was prolific painter and sculptor Steed Taylor. Taylor received the William Olander Award, presented to an individual in the creative arts living with HIV, named in honor of the late co-founder of Visual AIDS. Taylor's art has been exhibited in museums around the world including the Bronx Museum, the San Bernadino County Museum, the Neuberger Museum of Art, and Il Ponte Contemoranea in Rome, Italy. He has also created paintings installed on streets and walkways in communities across the country and around the world. As an avid activist for the HIV community, Taylor has worked with arts and HIV organizations, including the Whitman-Walker Clinic, Board of Directors for Visual AIDS, and Board of Directors of Cannabis Cares.
These three dynamic artists spoke eloquently and humbly about their work in the community, and overcoming stigma to become leaders in their respective fields. There were a few tears of joy and gratitude as each spoke, and I'll admit, a sniffle or two from me. The entire audience was inspired by the fortitude and creativity of these honored men, giving each a well-deserved standing ovation.
But the night wasn't over. Up next came a hilarious performance by Broadway and television actress, singer, comedian, and self-described "self-loathing Jew" Jackie Hoffman, who is best known for playing Mamacita in the FX series Feud: Bette and Joan. She sang two wisecracking comedy numbers that brought the house down.
It was a fantastic evening benefitting a terrific cause. Visual AIDS is an organization that is unique in its mission to provide artists living with HIV with the tools they need to thrive and create visual stories about their lives, thereby giving voice to perspectives about the struggles and victories associated with the history of HIV, and the challenges and triumphs of living with the virus today.
The event closed with dancing to the beats of DJ Ryan McNamara, but after grooving to the sounds for about half a song, I figured I should leave the late-night revelry to those younger and hipper than I. It was time to VAVA-vamoose my butt home.
Visual AIDS hosts many artistic events throughout the year. For a schedule on upcoming events, visit the Visual AIDS website. FOR A SCHEDULE ON UPCOMING EVENTS, VISIT THE VISUAL AIDS WEBSITE.