By Kerry Cardoza
“Stop erasing black people.” Protesters from the Tacoma Action Collective printed these words on t-shirts and decals; it later became a hashtag. The message was in response to the decade-in-the-making exhibition “Art AIDS America,” first shown at the Tacoma Art Museum in late 2015. Of the more than one-hundred artists included in the show, five were black, and only one of those was female-identified. The show’s dearth of artists of color garnered widespread attention, not least because black Americans continue to be disproportionately affected by HIV infection. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, African Americans represented twelve percent of the U.S. population but accounted for forty-five percent of HIV diagnoses in 2015.
The landmark exhibition was brought to Chicago in December by the Alphawood Foundation, a philanthropic organization. This iteration of the show has done a little better at representation; I counted ten black artists, one of whom is a woman, in addition to the five included in the original show. It’s installed in a temporary gallery at the intersection of Fullerton, Halsted and Lincoln, just down the street from the DePaul Art Museum, which is hosting something of an antidote to the primarily gay white story told at the original exhibition.
Titled “One day this kid will get larger,” the DePaul exhibition is named for an iconic print by the late David Wojnarowicz. The piece consists of a childhood photo of the artist surrounded by statements about his future, about how society will impose judgments and sanctions on him based solely on his sexual orientation. Funded in part by Alphawood, the second-floor exhibition centers the experience of people who are of color, LGBTQ, female-identified, and/or indigenous. It tells a broad story of how HIV and the AIDS crisis affects everyone.
Curator Danny Orendorff organized the show into three themes, all supporting the overarching focus on youth. As he notes in a takeaway publication, the exhibition’s youth focus “is urgently compelled by statistics.” According to the CDC, in 2014 young people aged thirteen to twenty-four accounted for more than one in five new HIV diagnoses. As of 2013, transgender people had the highest percentage of new HIV cases, with black trans-women accounting for fifty-six percent of that population. Orendorff wants to show, especially as this exhibition is held on a college campus, that the AIDS crisis is not over.
“Ultimately that’s kind of the ambition for the show, to kind of make it clear that young people are vulnerable to HIV infection. It’s still a public health crisis, despite the fact that we often think of this as being an illness that was designated to one time or place or community,” he says. “I hope that young people seeing themselves represented in this exhibition will be led to educate themselves more on this illness, and the history of this illness, and how it correlates to social justice struggles today.”
The main gallery begins with childhood. Photographs and an accompanying audio piece by Katja Heinemann tell stories from Camp Heartland, a place in upstate Minnesota for young people who have HIV or have family members who died or are living with the virus. “Growing Concern,” a color photograph by Shan Kelley, shows the artist’s daughter lying happily in her crib. Colorful letters on the wall spell out “What will you teach your children about AIDS?” The words take on a potent meaning with the knowledge that Kelley is an HIV-positive parent. As he writes on his website, “To teach about AIDS…is to teach about the human condition.”
Nearby is a multimedia installation by the Chicago artist Oli Rodriguez, a DePaul alumnus. “The Papi Project” includes family and found photos, textile prints of Lake Michigan and Craigslist correspondence between the artist and men who may have known the artist’s father. Rodriguez’ father died due to an AIDS-related illness in 1993. The resulting display paints an intimate, complicated portrait of his father’s life.
A narrow gallery focuses the ways in which institutionalized structures educate or fail to educate young people about HIV and AIDS. A series of black-and-white portraits by Lenn Keller, originally produced in 1989, depict black teenagers shown beside their thoughts on racism, gender and sexual relationships. Almost thirty years old, the series remains strikingly relevant. “AIDS to me is really scary,” says Kishana, age sixteen. “I don’t think a lot of kids take it all that seriously because they don’t believe it will affect them.”
Demian DinéYazhi, founder of the indigenous collective R.I.S.E.: Radical Indigenous Survivance and Empowerment, shows a series of screen-printed posters that contextualizes HIV and AIDS in the much longer history of white imperialism. The graphic works pair images and text to illustrate clear political points. In one print, two indigenous people stare at the camera with the words “Decolonize Your Luvvv” printed boldly over them.
The rear gallery focuses on pop culture and nightlife and is decidedly more joyful. “I wanted to show HIV-positive individuals coexisting and partying and having sex with HIV-negative individuals, in ways that are affirmative of life and of joy and pleasure,” Orendorff says. “Rainbows are the Shadows of a Presence,” a mural by local artist Aay Preston-Myint spans the back wall. A co-founder of the queer dance night “Chances Dances,” Preston-Myint fuses themes of nightlife, dance, art and activism in this beautiful piece that is laced with purple and yellow tones. The mural reflects the energy of the show’s looping soundtrack, composed by Jacquelyn Carmen Guerrero aka DJ CQQCHIFRUIT. Guerrero mixes pop songs about safe sex, music by HIV-positive artists and news reports about AIDS.
One of the best-known images from the AIDS crisis is the “Silence = Death” graphic, a simple textual message set beneath a pink triangle on a black background. The work, created before the emergence of the advocacy group AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) but quickly adopted by it, made a lot of connections, but at its core was the notion that the silence of people, notably the Reagan administration, to speak openly about AIDS, led to many lives lost. The sentiment could not be more relevant today, as tens of millions of Americans are poised to lose health coverage if and when the Affordable Care Act is repealed. Representation in art matters just as much as it does in politics, this show argues. “One day this kid will get larger” gives the communities most affected by HIV a chance to be heard—recognized—and a chance to see that their lives matter.
“One day this kid will get larger” shows through April 2 at the DePaul Art Museum, 935 West Fullerton.