How contemporary photographers are tackling HIV
A new photography book, Through Positive Eyes, shows the importance of representing the condition in all its nuances and diversity.
Cazu, Rio de Janiero from Through Positive Eyes (Aperture, 2019)
“You feel inclined to stigmatise HIV-positive people?” asks David Gere, co-editor of Through Positive Eyes, a new photography book which collects the work of HIV-positive people from ten cities around the world. “Then we will foreground a cadre of smart, articulate people living with HIV and AIDS who use their words and their photographic images to push back, hard.” The book, published by the Aperture Foundation, is a collaboration between South African photographer Gideon Mendel and 130 participants. Over the course of 12 years, Mendel organised workshops with people living with HIV, in which they were invited to tell their stories using both words and photography. Rather than positioning these people as ‘subjects’ or victims, the project empowers them to take charge of their own representation.
The last half decade has seen a flurry of art devoted to the AIDS crisis, specifically the years between 1981 and 1996, before the discovery of combination antiretroviral therapy, when the illness often meant a death sentence. In terms of theatre, Stephen Daldry’s The Inheritance and the Andrew Garfield-starring production of Angels in America have been among the most talked-about plays on the stages of London and New York, while TV series Pose, which features an HIV-positive and trans protagonist, has successfully dramatised the shadow which AIDS cast on the 1980s queer scene. Films such as 120 BPM and Sarah Shulman’s United in Anger have portrayed the activism of protest group ACT UP, which fought for the rights of people with AIDS, to thrilling effect. And it’s not just contemporary work which has thrown the subject into the spotlight: the last two years have seen major retrospectives of Derek Jarman, David Wojnarowicz, Robert Mapplethorpe, Peter Hujar and Keith Haring in the most prestigious institutions. (The art world was not quite so receptive while the AIDS crisis was actually happening.)
Understandably, many of these artworks focus on themes of death and grief: think of David Wojnarowicz’s haunting photograph of his friend Peter Hujar taken moments after his death, or Keith Haring’s colourful, almost incongruously cheerful ‘SILENCE = DEATH’ posters. It’s difficult to find an AIDS film or novel, meanwhile, which doesn’t feature the heart-rending death of at least one character. But while mortality is a historically-important aspect of the illness and one which deserves memorialisation, it doesn’t necessarily form a part of the reality of HIV today, when the majority of people are on treatment, live long and healthy lives, and can’t pass the virus on (although it’s worth saying this is dependent on access to healthcare, and mortality remains important outside of the West). In response, a new generation of artists are making work which is about living with HIV, rather than dying due to AIDS.
Through Positive Eyes rejects the narratives of incapacitating illness and premature death which have often defined artistic responses to the illness. The images and writings throughout are joyful, intimate, occasionally erotic: there’s no hospital scenes, no one with their head in their hands in a gesture of despair, no dead bodies. Instead, there are candid, documentary style portraits of body builders; bejewelled dancers; lovers and families embracing.
That optimistic framing is, admittedly, true of lots of AIDS art made pre-1996 too. After all, Keith Haring’s work can hardly be described as glum, nor Mapplethorpe’s unerotic. Mark Chester, meanwhile, created photographic self-portraits in which he displayed both his erect penis and Kaposi’s Sarcoma lesions -- a way of reasserting his sexuality in the face of the illness that would eventually kill him. The difference, perhaps, is that there was an element of defiant bravery to these pre-1996 depictions of joy or eroticism -- which in contemporary art can be matter-of-fact. In Through Positive Eyes, joy is simply self-evident.
It challenges conventional representations of HIV/AIDS by focusing on the diversity, both geographical and ethnic, of the people involved. There are participants from eight countries across five continents, including Johannesburg, Mumbai, and London. “If people think that the human history of HIV is about urban, white gay men,” says David, “then we want introduce them to the women of colour, rural and urban, and trans people whose lives have been side-swiped by it.” There’s a growing body of scholarship which argues that HIV has too often been represented as a white issue -- a situation which is partly down to disparities in who has the opportunity to become an artist in the first place, as well as which artists receive recognition. It’s striking how little attention black queer artists at work in the 1980s, such as Alvin Baltrop or Rotmi Fani-Kayode, have received in comparison to their white counterparts. This disparity is particularly problematic when you consider that, in the UK and US alike, black people are, and always have been, disproportionately affected by HIV.
None of this is to suggest that white artists like Haring, Mapplethorpe or Wojnarowicz are undeserving of the posthumous attention they’ve received, or to imply that their lives weren’t sufficiently marginalised to warrant sympathy. But if we’re going to make the blanket statement “it’s necessary to memorialise the AIDS crisis’’ then we have to reflect upon who is being remembered, and who risks being forgotten.
As well as issues related to race, HIV has often been portrayed in gendered terms, as a condition affecting men (the fact that Through Positive Eyes features so many women is another of its strengths.) One contemporary artist challenging this narrative is Kia Labeija, an American artist and woman of colour who was born HIV-positive (who, incidentally, appears in the first episode of Pose). In one famous image, part of a series of 24 photographic self-portraits, she attends an HIV check-up while wearing a resplendent, red cocktail dress, which simultaneously situates her condition in a medical context while refusing to allow it to define her.
“Kia Labeija has advocated passionately for the inclusion of black and brown people's stories and artworks in the HIV narrative,” says Dr Fiona Johnson, an art historian whose book, AIDS & Representation, will be published by Bloomsbury later this year. “Her work is also important as it points to a history of people initially excluded from clinical definitions of AIDS. These historical clinical and epidemiological categories have had a long-term knock-on effect in terms of structuring the popular imaginary around what 'counts' as an HIV narrative or representation.”
Craig, a Guamanian-American, HIV-positive man who lives in London, believes that there is a real necessity for art which depicts the contemporary experience of living with HIV. “It seems the constant image of HIV/AIDS being shown is what it was like in the 1980s and 1990s, and that is important in the sense that we do have to document that. We can’t forget what it did to our community. But at the same time, I don’t feel there’s enough art or film to counter that and show what it’s like today.” What does he feel is missing in terms of contemporary representation of HIV in art? “U=U,” he says, referring to the ‘undetectable = untransmittable’ campaign, which is centred around the fact that people on effective treatment for HIV can’t pass it on. “I’m not sick, I’m not dying. The drugs don’t fuck my body up. I will live a healthy lifespan. It can still be a mindfuck but the disease looks like me now.”
As well as documenting the tragedies of the past, it’s important that we have art that tackles these nuanced and occasionally tedious (in Craig’s words) challenges today. These might be harder to narrativise or make impactful than ready-made stories of death and loss but as the participants in Through Positive Eyes show, alongside artists like Kia LaBeija and her contemporaries, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be attempted. Tackling the epidemic of the present means acknowledging the faults of the past.
All photography courtesy of the artist/AGHC