featured gallery for November 2018

The multi-faceted narrative of illness

Over a 4-week period jointly funded by Arts Council England and British Council Artists' International Development Fund (AIDF), an initiative that enables international collaborations with artists and institutions, I mined through the Visual AIDS Archive Project and Artist+ Registry to get closer to the illness narratives of those still here and those who are no longer with us. I sought to learn more, to feel, to experience, to encounter, always with the consciousness that I will never fully know what it was like to experience loss on this scale—of friends, lovers, comrades and colleagues often young and snatched away by the HIV/AIDS epidemic. I have been moved by intimate stories, raw anger, fear, and the ongoing cyclical struggles of living with illness that this archive holds. I have also admired the public-centred initiatives by Visual AIDS that re-address the invisibility of non-white individuals affected by HIV/AIDS (see Alternative Endings, Radical Beginnings for Day With(out) Art 2017 here), alongside 30 years of activism to amplify voices, preserve individual stories, give visibility and support to artists living with HIV.

The multi-faceted narrative of illness brings together a selection of artworks that mediate on the continued fight against HIV/AIDS through the lens of female visibility, Blackness and confronting the medical discourse. Artists Robert BlanchonFrank GreenRotimi Fani-KayodeKia LaBeijaCharles LongKissa MillarJessica Whitbread and Frederick Weston directly use or reference their body with metaphors across different media—photography, collage, performance and mixed-media installation. The work is selected from the Artist+ Registry of Visual AIDS, an archive consisting of disparate voices, past and present telling individual narratives of HIV/AIDS across gender, age, race, class, geographies and more. The multi-faceted narrative of illness draws its inspiration from Stella Bolaki’s text, Illness as Many Narratives: Arts, Medicine and Culture where she call for the examining of the “aesthetic, ethical and cultural importance of contemporary representations of illness across different art forms and media,”which in turn results in “a process that contests accepted notions of self-healing art, cultural studies and medical humanities in order to establish critical conversations that amplifies the goal and scope of these disciplines respective work.”[1] I take on this thinking as an ongoing and evolving research interest on illness narratives and disability studies, spurred on by Bolaki’s call for scholars to pursue new approaches to understanding others and continue activist traditions of giving voice, or rather, amplifying voices of those who are continually silenced and stigmatised by illness. Jessica Whitbread, Kia LaBeija and Kissa Millar bring female visibility to the forefront, whilst Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Charles Long and Frederick Weston deal with Black male narratives, queerness and the stigmatisation. Robert Blanchon on the other hand, dealt conceptually with the politics of AIDS and queer sexuality, whilst Frank Green boldly confronted medicine and its discourse head on with proactive works questioning treatment regimes and ecologies of care associated with this illness.

For this selection, I centre on the ‘many’ ways in which illness has been weaponised against oppressional forces that are medical, social and political by artists who have lived with and continue to live with HIV. Artists across different generations create artworks from inter-connected but disparate perspectives that traverse time and geographical contexts to amplify voices and reinforce the multiple narratives for HIV/AIDS, that returns us to Sontag’s call to challenge the victim-blaming in the language (and I add, actions and behaviours) often used to describe diseases and those who suffer from them. Art-activism allows us to move beyond text-based evidence to gain understandings of embodiment and experiences of illness, whilst building an argument about the benefits of developing a visual sociological imagination.

Women with HIV and AIDS were, up until 1993, excluded from the US definition of the syndrome. Since 2015, LOVE POSITIVE WOMEN, initiated by artist Jessica Whitbread (b.1980), functions as a community-based call to action for engaging in public-private acts of love and care for women living with HIV. Whitbread explores sexuality and curiosity in her art practice whilst working at the intersections of social and community art, often merging art and activism to engage diverse audiences in critical dialogue with illness. She uses her body and lived experience as a queer woman with HIV as the primary site of her work in ongoing projects such as No Pants No Problem, Tea Time, and PosterVIRUS (AIDS ACTION NOW!). In her collaborative project with Morgan M Page/Odofemi, Space Dates (2012), humour, science-fiction and radical self-love interrogates the intersection of the criminalization of HIV non-disclosure, the ‘safer sex industrial complex,’ and queer women’s sexualities. These photographs depict two women in spacesuits going on dates whilst attempting to have ‘so-safe-you-can’t-even-feel-it sex’ with each other all the time wearing ‘contamination-proof’ space suits.

Kia LaBeija (b.1990) was born HIV positive to an untested mother and in recent years, has become an advocate who challenges perceptions of long-term survivors—most often depicted as older white men—through her multifaceted dance and visual arts practice. Encountering her self-portraits and performances reveal tender and fragile moments dealing with love, loss, illness and health. LaBeija inhabits the survivor, not victim position informed by her activist mother Kwan Bennett, who until her death in 2004 fought relentlessly to show another face of HIV/AIDS and to serve the community and cultures—Filipina, Native American—of which she was a part. Her work also draws on memories of her mother and the challenges of living with HIV today. In Mourning Sickness (2014), premiered as part of Visual AIDS’ Ephemera as Evidence exhibition in July 2014, LaBeija lays in a fetal position in a bathroom, directly gazing at the viewer in a comfort-inducing pose after sickness. The work title is a play on words that alludes to both the loss of the artist’s mother and LaBeija’s everyday realities of living with HIV; that is, the time spent being sick.

Kissa Millar’s (b.1989) body-based practice directly responds to the changing discourse around the HIV virus. By staging her body as a central site for documentation, through performance and photography, Millar invites the viewer to witness, feel, connect, and, by presenting her perspective as a woman living with HIV, to get rid of prejudices, discrimination, and stigma. What do they think lives under my skin? (2014) by Millar is a photograph of a performance work with the artist adopting a corpse-like (skeletal) figure covered in white cream and within a green smoky landscape with white balloons. The skeleton alludes to the wasting-away due to illness, whilst green suggests contagion and the spread of infection. The title of this work postulates the often baseless and ill-informed assumptions of living with an illness such as HIV through a representation that is as unrealistic as the stigmatization of ill bodies.

Notions of Blackness within HIV/AIDS intersects and deal with stigmatisation, invisibility and, particularly in the US, the public health and criminal justice systems, as rates of HIV among Black populations are higher than they are for other racial groups. This has led to the need to question and clarify why race is salient in the context of HIV/AIDS while confronting issues pertaining to racism in these systems. Charles Long’s (b.1979) work is an important consideration here in his use of a text-based call to action for structural change, liberation and visibility of young gay Black men within wider illness narratives. As an artist working across disciplines, an activist and Black liberationist, Long has worked among poor, disabled, young, LGBT, drug using and homeless communities. The histories of young Black and queer individuals (past and present) runs through his works, as does the language around illness which draws on hygiene (that is, clean versus unclean), and the regulation of Black bodies. The mirrored piece, CLEAN (2014), speaks of intuitions about hygiene, dirt, and disease, while commenting on cultural constructions of dirt and disgust surrounding HIV/AIDS in order to dismantle the language of stigmatisation. Long reminds us of the pervasive use of language that characterises those living with the virus as undesirable and even dangerous.

Rotimi Fani-Kayode (1955–1989), a Nigerian-British photographer who created transgressive and timeless photographic portraits in the 1980s celebrating the Black male body entangled with notions of desire, diaspora, sexuality, and spirituality. Fani-Kayode’s family rejected him when he came out, and he left Britain to study Fine Art and Economics at Georgetown University in Washington DC. He became a friend of Robert Mapplethorpe, an early influence and Fani-Kayode is renowned today for the collaborative works he produced with Alex Hirst, his life partner. The position of an exile is one he inhabited throughout his life, first fleeing the country of his birth as a child due to the Biafran war, to rejection by his family as a gay man up until his untimely death in 1989 due to complications related to AIDS. Fani-Kayode wrote about parallels between his work and that of the Osogbo artists in Yorubaland who resisted the cultural subversions of neo-colonialism and celebrated the rich, secret ancestral worlds. The spiritual Black-male body is at the forefront of representation in his works, serving as a way to connect to his Nigerian heritage away from the societal constraints of racial and sexual discriminations in a world unaccepting of such bodies. Fani-Kayode’s photographs are inspired by what Yoruba priests describe as “the technique of ecstasy,” where reality is distorted to create altered states of consciousness in order to escape confines, transcend bounds of the physical world, and break through to the spiritual world. Abiku (born to die) (1988) is a Yoruba word that translates to “predestined to death” or “that which possesses death.” The child which possess “iku” (death) is one who dies and is reborn several times, thus alluding to a life that is ephemeral and Fani-Kayode’s engagement with his own mortality.

Frederick Weston (b.1946) started working in the fashion industry in New York in the 1980s and began collecting a range of objects, news articles, and ephemera that he incorporates into his large-scale assemblages. As one of the founding members of the guerrilla collective Underground Railroad, Weston has long engaged with activism in New York City, particularly as it relates to living as a Black, HIV-positive, queer male. His artworks use critical humour to unpack the language of illness as observed in artworks including Rid of HIV (1999), My Disease (1998–89) and Fluffy Line of Defense (1999) that also deal with blackness, masculinity and the medical. The colour blue is prevalent in several of his large-scale assemblages serving as a symbol, metaphor and physical reminder of living with illness and its associated tropes of cleanliness. Blue equates to being sick, hospitalization and curative medicines.

Frank Green (b.1957–2013) boldly questions medical care and curative HIV/AIDS initiatives, most notably in relation to the administering of AZT, one of the most toxic, expensive, and controversial drugs made available to patients. With messy and confrontational performances, Green enacts a form of radical self-healing at a time when expert treatment and opinion relegated PWAs into a position of victimhood and despair without a regard for individual voices. Green challenged medical categorisations not to deny his HIV/AIDS status, but rather, as both a refusal and critique of the linearity of the prevalent diagnosis narrative of the time: HIV = AIDS = Death. He rejected the discipline’s quickness to “label,” “define” and “attack” parts of a subject’s anatomy with a disregard for dealing with whole persons, which in his view neglected ecologies of the physical, the psychological and the environmental, all of which contribute to maintaining health and well-being. Green’s work juxtaposed medical ephemera and images from the HIV/AIDS discourse (photographs, condoms, pills, and pink triangles), resulting in a self-referential system to counter the medical victim-patient position. A work exemplary of this collision and confrontation of the individual self-experimentation versus the medical is Anonymous Test Site (1997), a participatory performance first staged at the 7a*11d International Festival of Performance Art, Toronto. In this performance, “Victim,” “Sinner,” “Hero” and “Warrior,” were some of the labels used to describe Green and, as a bisexual ex-junkie, performance art as activism was used by the artist to challenge a normative position through acts of self-determination, access to alternative information and refusal to take the recommended drug AZT known for its detrimental side effects.

Robert Blanchon (1965–1999) used a conceptual approach to photography, writings and ephemera in order to tackle the politics of HIV/AIDS with themes including queer sexuality; memory, loss, and nostalgia; the politicized body; and the effects of his illness. Most notable are letter exchanges with his mother telling her of his HIV-positive status in Protection, detail with butterflies 2 (1992) and personal items including clothing, sculptures and video works all dealing with histories of American Conceptual Art, the politics of AIDS, and representations of queer sexuality. Queerness in the work of Blanchon, as Marvin J. Taylor notes, was not just about his sexuality but rather, “a queer approach to the world where things are askew, askance, catty-corner—perverse in the epistemological sense yet thoroughly postmodern.”[2] According to Taylor, Blanchon was as a profound prankster who collapsed all of the structures of culture and art, bodies, and desire as fodder for his parodies. In hap-hazard (1996), 990 c-print photographs are housed in in a heap of plexiglass boxes (3 x 2 x 2 inches each), recalling conceptual motifs used by Félix Gonzáles-Torres and a nod to the Picture Generation’s strategies of appropriation and the agitprop tactics of the AIDS movement.

The multi-faceted narrative of illness invokes a more nuanced conversation on illness narratives, care and equality for individuals living with HIV/AIDS. Through this selection, illness serves as a both a lens and activist method (approach) to amplify voices whilst fighting against the classification of bodies, oppressive and marginalisation indoctrination that pit binaries of healthy versus, sick, clean versus, dirty, fit versus unfit and so on.

Further Reading

Stella Bolaki, Illness as Many Narratives: Arts, Medicine and Culture, Edinburgh University Press; 1 edition (2016).

Lisa Cartwright, Screening the Body: Tracing Medicine's Visual Culture, University of Minnesota Press; First edition (1995).

Elizabeth Mansfield, Too Beautiful to Picture: Zeuxis, Myth and Mimesis, University of Minnesota Press; First edition (2007).

Carrie Sandahl, “Performing metaphors: AIDS, disability, and technology, “Contemporary Theatre Review, 2001, vol. 11:3-4, pp. 49-60, DOI: 10.1080/10486800108568638.

Marvin J. Taylor, Mighty Real: The Work of Robert Blanchon (19 November 2009 – 26 February 2010) Tracey/Barry Gallery Bobst Library, New York University, exhibition notes available here.

Turn Illness Into a Weapon A Polemic and Call to Action by the Socialist Patients’ Collective of the University of Heidelberg available here.


[1] Stella Bolaki, Illness as Many Narratives: Arts, Medicine and Culture, Edinburgh University Press; 1 edition (March 1, 2016), p.9.

[2] Marvin J. Taylor, Mighty Real: The Work of Robert Blanchon (19 November 2009 – 26 February 2010) Tracey/Barry Gallery Bobst Library, New York University, exhibition notes available here.