The Art AIDS America exhibition at The Bronx Museum of the Arts presents a variety of artwork ranging from films and paintings to neon signs and strips of leather, illustrating the impact of the HIV/AIDS crisis in the United States toward the end of the twentieth century. Divided into different sections – Body, Spirit, Activism, Camouflage, and more – the exhibition gives us an inside perspective of the epidemic and its impact on artists who had HIV/AIDS or who had loved ones who did. Additionally, we are given personal points of view from LGBTQ artists, depicting the effects the crisis had on the LGBTQ community and the stigmas it left behind.
After watching the black-and-white film Tongues Tied (1989) by Marlon T. Riggs, which used personal narratives to depict the reality of being black and gay in the 1980s, you walk into the rest of the exhibition. Immediately, you are confronted by a large canvas painted with the words “Still Here”. Those two chilling words, in Deborah Kass’ painting, transition you into the reality, as you learn and remember that the effects, emotions, and social issues revolving around HIV/AIDS which are translated in the artwork still exist today.
Intimate and personal stories and emotions are translated through pieces such as Sweet Williams (2013) by Robert Sherer, a painting of hands cutting beautiful flowers made of HIV-negative and HIV-positive blood to memorialize the friends and acquaintances he lost through a childhood memory. While some pieces preserve and commemorate experiences of the artists and others as their lives and community fell apart, other pieces show the rage they felt- discussing political issues which led to thousands of lives being lost. Surrounded by personal photographs and paintings, a neon sign reading “SILENCE=DEATH” below a pink triangle looms over one of the exhibition’s rooms (Let the Record Show (1987) by ACT UP NY/Gran Fury). This piece gave the haunting political message that the other artwork in the room depicting death and suffering from HIV/AIDs would only continue because of that silence, unless social action was taken to bring attention to the crisis, the lack of government attention, and the lack of medical aid.
While the artwork was moving and powerful, its integration into the space could have been more cohesive and have filled out the area more. The collection was a bit too large for the space given, yet subtracting any of the pieces from the exhibition would not be beneficial due to the significance of each work of art in the show.
Additionally, there is a huge lack of representation in the exhibition: there are only 4 African American artists featured out of the 107 artists in the collection. Moreover, visual and performance artist Kia Labeija was the only African American female artist featured, and her photographs on display are the only representation in the show of a woman living with HIV. In a video with Sur Rodney conducted by the Zuckerman Museum of Art, Labeija stated,
“I am one of the artists in the show. I’m proud to say that I’m the only female African American artist in the show. I’m also the only representation of mother-to-child transmission of HIV in the show, and of a woman living with HIV who’s an artist in the show… being the only female representation of African American women in the show, it hurt very much for me because I’ve always felt like women, especially women of color, are not really recognized for being a part of the AIDS epidemic. We’re very, very silenced. We’re not really funded. We don’t have community. And as a child born with HIV who lost her mother at fourteen, I’ve felt very, very alone for a long time.”
Despite leading viewers on to think that the collection features a diverse amount of perspectives and experiences, this is unfortunately not the case.
Overall, the Art AIDS America exhibition is a poignant, enlightening, and influential show illustrating the effects of and the emotions behind the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the U.S. As well as reflecting on the past, the show effectively reminds us that this crisis and its long-lasting effects on today’s society must not be forgotten. The show, however, lacks the inclusivity which would have made its message and impact more powerful, as well as giving a voice to communities affected by the AIDS crisis who are constantly silenced and are in crucial need of representation.