This fall, Visual AIDS is proud to launch a new series of original scholarly writing that directly engages with the Visual AIDS Archive Project. In this first installment, Julia Harris considers three artists within the context of what she calls "AIDS feminism." Harris' work was supported by our inaugural research fellowship.

Historical Bodies: AIDS Feminism in the Works of Valerie Caris Blitz, Jerome Caja, and Affrekka Jefferson

Julia Harris

In an interview with the ACT UP Oral History Project, the activist Risa Denenberg recalls that the predominantly white gay men making up the majority of ACT UP “didn’t have a real sense of history…of health movements. And so they were kind of like the blind leading the blind.”1 Women like herself, who had been active in the Women’s Health Movement for years, “thought a little more historically,” and they brought their experiences organizing for bodily autonomy and accessible medical services to the struggle for AIDS treatment. In the realm of activism, the bonds between second wave feminism and AIDS organizing were clear, if often configured as an affinity between seronegative feminist women and seropositive gay men who had been previously uninvolved in feminist efforts.

While perhaps usefully indicating a historical lineage between movements, this configuration neglects the contributions of women with AIDS, both as activists and as theorists of AIDS experience. Regarding women and other transfeminine people2 as theorists of AIDS feminism can help elucidate the contours of a specifically seropositive feminist vision: one that indeed thinks historically through the act of embodiment and seeks to meld feminist vision with the experience of illness in creative ways. In this essay, I will examine works by Valerie Caris Blitz, Affrekka Jefferson, and Jerome Caja, who each offer a specific AIDS-feminist point of view. AIDS feminism, as I posit it here, is a framework that links the politics of illness and disability, lived and historical ties to queerness, and resistance against gender oppression. The feminism I envision here must account for all people who are subjected to gender oppression, and simultaneously embraces, exceeds, and interrogates the category of “woman.” Caris Blitz, Jefferson, and Caja each offer their own vision of womanhood and/or femininity that finds grounding in a historically rooted sense of gender and gender oppression, and that draws on that understanding in order to illuminate the experience of life with AIDS in a misogynistic, racist, homophobic, and ableist world. It’s important to note here, too, that the commitment to social critique shared by these three artists is infused with joy, humor, and play. These artists, then, embody an ethos essential to both feminist and AIDS activist traditions: a love of and commitment to life itself that must undergird all liberatory politics.

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Valerie Caris Blitz, Vestment, 1993. Mixed media. Courtesy of the Estate of Valerie Caris.

Through the works of these artists, a visual and material language of AIDS feminism begins to emerge: one that is in dialogue with conceptual and activist discourses, but also exceeds them. These are connections drawn readily in the work of Valerie Caris Blitz (1957–2009). A multidisciplinary artist who posed for Nan Goldin, acted for Rosa von Praunheim, and performed burlesque, Caris Blitz had a longtime interest in exploring sexuality, gender, and power through the prism of her own body, often through exposure. Her friend, the performance artist Ron Athey, quipped that she had “an impressive commitment to being half-naked in public.”3 After contracting HIV while struggling with drug addiction, Caris Blitz got sober and began to explore her AIDS experience through her work. Art became a way for her to “feel adored, to act out sexually in a safe way and be glamorous.”4 The pursuit of these desires, ones that the larger culture generally denied to both women and to people with AIDS, was both a personal and an artistic mission. Cariz Blitz passed away in 2009.

Through gesture and stance, Caris Blitz evokes her personal history, as a woman who has made a life through performance of sexuality, and the longer history of women who have done such.

Caris Blitz’s “Vestment” serves as a material manifestation of her AIDS-inflected feminism, presented through the artist’s own body. The piece is a hospital gown, meticulously crafted of Caris Blitz’s own printed blood-work charts and bearing a tear on the front right hip through which a facsimile of one of her tattoos peeks out. The immediate resonances between feminism and AIDS in this piece are clear: Caris Blitz draws on garment-making, a traditionally feminized craft, as an act of record-keeping of her own AIDS experience. Embedded within the hospital gown, typically a nondescript and mass-produced garment devoid of personal expression, the tear on the hip acts as a marker of selfhood. If the hospital gown threatens to symbolically turn person into patient, Caris Blitz insists on tearing through this anonymity to leave her bodily mark.

Valerie Caris Photoby Peter Cramer
Valerie Caris Blitz modeling her mixed-media gown "Vestment" (1993) outside of the Getty in 1999. Photograph by Peter Cramer

In a series of photos by Peter Cramer capturing Caris Blitz modeling the gown, she leans against the exterior wall of a minimalist building. In one shot, she faces the wall, contours of her tattooed back and hip peeking out of the open back of the gown. In two more shots, she leans her back against the wall, eyes closed, her face set in an expression of agony or ecstasy, her tattooed hip flashing beneath the garment’s tear. In these pictures, Caris Blitz brings to life the erotics of the hospital gown: the open back a peep show, the delicate paper easy to rip. Her stiletto heels, white patent leather with an ankle strap, add another layer of expertly performed femininity. Through gesture and stance, Caris Blitz evokes her personal history, as a woman who has made a life through performance of sexuality, and the longer history of women who have done such. While a provocation lies in Caris Blitz’s dare to the viewer to desire her, a woman with AIDS, she carries the provocation easily, naturally. Why shouldn’t we desire her? In these images, Caris Blitz collapses the body with AIDS, the feminine body, the artist’s body, the sexy body, the patient’s body, into one body: her own.

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Jerome Caja, The Birth of Venus in Cleveland, 1988. Nail polish on plastic tray, 6 x 4 x ½ in. Courtesy of the Estate of Jerome Caja

Sharing Caris Blitz’s commitment to the outrageous, Jerome Caja’s (1958–1995) work plays with tropes of femininity, frequently depicting transfeminine bodies engaged in humorous, kinky, and symbolically charged scenes. Caja’s work is rich with biblical and religious imagery and art history references, blended with kitsch and kink. As Nayland Blake recalls, “Jerome came out of the tradition of gender-fuck drag. She would go back and forth with the names and pronouns she’d use for other people – it wasn’t about presentation, more about an invitation to disrupt gender at any point.”5 Justin Vivian Bond puts it more bluntly: “If she were alive today, she would drive the pronoun police crazy, because she didn’t give a shit.”6 In accordance with the recollections of Caja shared by those who knew her, I will refer to Caja by both she/her and he/him pronouns in this essay. I place Caja’s work within a transfeminine cultural tradition without attempting to categorize her gender within contemporary labels.

Caja was born to a large Catholic family in Cleveland, and moved as a young adult to San Francisco. His Midwestern Catholic roots and the San Francisco drag scene would both become major influences on his work as an artist. In a conversation with me, Caja’s longtime friend Anna van der Muelen described her as incredibly funny and empathetic, and as someone with a lifelong affinity with feminism. She recalled Caja asking questions about what it was like to move through the world as a cis woman, or to have heterosexual sex with men. Anna pointed specifically to Caja’s frequent works depicting Saint Lucy, who gouged her eyes out rather than marry a man, as feminist expressive acts. Particular labels weren’t important to Caja, according to Anna: rather, he was concerned with resisting the forces of oppression writ large. Caja’s work displays the same outrageous playfulness that she brought to her life. Her favored medium was nail polish, and Justin Vivian Bond recalls that “the fumes from all of those bottles of nail polish day after day could really go to your head.”7 The painstaking process of applying nail polish implied in Caja’s work can be read as a sort of feminized performance, and I argue that this performance ought to be read as part of not just a queer lineage but a feminist one.

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Jerome Caja, Untitled (Blue Faced Nun), n.d. Ceramic, 10 x 13 x 2 ½ in.

In creating meticulously painted scenes of kink, humor, horror, and beauty out of nail polish, Caja might be understood to be performing what the scholar of activism Sara Warner terms an “act of gaiety:” a queer performance that projects and enacts joy, while refusing somber assimilationism or capitulation to grimness or tragedy.8 Warner’s work focuses on recovering cultural memory of lesbian feminist acts of gaiety in order to rebuke the stereotype of the joyless lesbian feminist and reconnect the lesbian feminist tradition to queer theory. By thinking about Caja’s work through Warner’s lens, I hope to draw attention to another common elision: the failure to account for transfeminine expression as a part of a queer feminist tradition. Artistic resonances, here, might allow us to break past the dynamics of historical political and cultural movements, which are always necessarily mired in interpersonal dynamics and the biases of the time, and see new affinities. Caja’s proclivity for playfully shocking the viewer, often combining beauty and profanity and invoking culturally and politically loaded symbols while scrambling their meanings, has a great deal in common with the lesbian feminist zaps and performances that Warner describes.

The piece simultaneously skewers the cruelty that unsympathetic medical providers showed toward AIDS patients and ironically embraces the mean nurse as a sort of camp figure, a la Mommy Dearest: you’d almost love her, if you didn’t hate her.

This playfulness can turn sharp, as in “Nurse’s Prayer,” a small painting that depicts an unsmiling green-faced nurse adorned with skull earrings and necklace. Alongside her, the text reads: “Nurse’s Prayer/Fuck off and Die/Amen.” The nurse’s green pallor grants her a whiff of the undead, while her arched brows, heavy blue eyeshadow, and red lipstick scream “drag.” In my conversation with van der Muelen, she cautioned me that I shouldn’t too easily assume that I can correctly parse the genders and sexes of people depicted in Caja’s work: figures easily interpreted as drag queens were sometimes cis woman friends of Caja’s, and vice versa. Of course, this slipperiness is exactly the point. The nurse in “Nurse’s Prayer” might be a particular nurse, an amalgam of all hostile nurses, and a drag send-up of the figure of the cruel nurse all at once. The piece simultaneously skewers the cruelty that unsympathetic medical providers showed toward AIDS patients and ironically embraces the mean nurse as a sort of camp figure, a la Mommy Dearest: you’d almost love her, if you didn’t hate her. The presentation of the text as a prayer wraps in another of Caja’s frequent tropes: the aesthetic excesses and moral hypocrisies of Catholicism. Christianity here is cast as a death cult, made only more odious by the feminine adornment of the plaque with rosettes and a pink bow. Caja demonstrates a commitment to gaiety, one that resonates with queer and feminist lineages, in the face of abjection.

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Affrekka Jefferson, Two Sapphos, 1980. Woodcut print on paper, 16 ½ x 11 ½ in.

Finally, I will turn to the work of Affrekka Jefferson (1950–2004), who used woodcut prints to impart political messages about queerness, womanhood, Blackness, and AIDS. Nea Jefferson, Affrekka’s daughter, described her mother to me as a lifelong artist who remained dedicated to her craft even while struggling with illness and addiction. As a six-foot-tall Black bisexual woman, Jefferson’s dedication to justice and equality flowed directly out her experiences of oppression and standing out. Nea recalled her mother’s particular passion for Black History Month, and the joy she took in creating works to celebrate Black historical figures. She had a longtime affinity with feminism; as a young woman, she attended feminist marches and brought her little sister to see Angela Davis speak at a rally. When she was diagnosed with HIV, her family continued to support and embrace her, and Nea described her as undeterred by her diagnosis. Though Affrekka died in 2004, her legacy within the Jefferson family lives on: Nea told me that her mother’s career as an artist has been an inspiration to multiple younger family members who have gone on to pursue the arts. She is remembered by her family as strong, determined, and generous.

Performance is powerful; the way you walk through the world matters. Living with AIDS, interpreted through the lens of performance, is a powerful political act.

Jefferson’s prints, which frequently employ text and employ strikingly graphic compositions, resonate not only with a “fine art” tradition but also with the activist practice of poster-making. In her print “Two Sapphos,” Jefferson plays with the format of the poster to celebrate queerness and bodily pleasure. One woman kisses the breast of another woman, kneeling above her. Both women are nude, and the format of the piece suggests a voyeuristic poster for a porno, but Jefferson cleverly pivots the meaning of the piece with the text running along its bottom: “FOR ADULT WOMEN ONLY.” This text simultaneously resonates with a pornographic interpretation (adults only!) while also closing out the male gaze. The pleasure displayed in the image is not marked as private; it’s meant to be shared, but only between women. Jefferson enacts here what art historian Julia Skelly terms “radical decadence”: a feminist practice of artmaking that uses nontraditional or craft mediums in order to create artistic space for women’s pleasure.9 Jefferson repurposes the format of the porno flick poster to insist on pleasure shared only between women, and she does so through the medium of woodcut print, one that reminds viewers insistently of the artist’s hand and control over the image.

AIDS is Jefferson’s subject matter in a 1997 linoleum print titled “Power of Performance.” Depicted bodies are absent from the image, except for a hand at the bottom of the frame reaching in to type on a keyboard. We see a globe, a microscope, a computer with a red AIDS ribbon on its screen. The image suggests a sort of techno-optimism: a hope that the progress of scientific medicine will lead to a global solution to the AIDS crisis. Yet the hand is anonymous. Is it a researcher? A doctor? A person with AIDS, conducting their own research on the still-young world wide web? The title of the piece does not clarify these questions but adds another layer of intrigue. Performance is powerful, yes, but whose? I would suggest that multiple meanings are embedded here: the title serves as both a firm reminder to medical researchers and providers (perform well, because people’s lives are quite literally at stake), and an uplifting suggestion to people with AIDS. Performance is powerful; the way you walk through the world matters. Living with AIDS, interpreted through the lens of performance, is a powerful political act.

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Affrekka Jefferson, Power of Performance, 1997. Linoleum print on paper, 14 x 11 ½ in.

What I have laid out here is not a cohesive theory of AIDS feminism, but rather the suggestion that such a framework can helpfully illuminate interpretations of the work of woman and gender non-conforming artists with AIDS. Conversely, the works of these artists point the way toward a vision of AIDS feminism that centers the embodied experiences of people with AIDS. This framework situates these artists as being in relationship with both the historical feminist and AIDS activist movements, and in lively conversations about womanhood, queerness, and illness.

Activists and artists have been arguing since the 1980s for inclusion of women in AIDS medical research and for representation of women with AIDS in spaces concerned with AIDS politics, yet the work remains unfinished, and feminism and AIDS activism remain historical and contemporary categories largely imagined as side-by-side rather than significantly overlapping. We find ourselves now in a present historical moment where access to abortion is curtailed; where an ongoing pandemic causing mass illness and disability continues to be grossly mismanaged; where access to gender appropriate care for transgender people is actively under threat. The ongoing legacy of AIDS feminism as a practice to help us think about illness, care, gender, and sexuality as an enmeshed matrix could hardly be more necessary. Caja, Caris Blitz, and Jefferson offer three artistic entry points to this practice. Though AIDS and related complications took the lives of all three artists, their work remains insistent, vital, alive.


1. Risa Denenberg, ACT UP Oral History Project, Interview 093, July 11, 2008, 31.

2. I say “other transfeminine people” here to explicitly include trans and gender nonconforming people who did or do not specifically identify as women but certainly have something to say about womanhood and femininity. This phrasing should not be interpreted as marking trans women as being somehow separate from the greater category of “women”: they are not. Identities and the way we name them fluctuate over time. My goal in this essay is to hold the category of womanhood open as widely as possible, making room for all who affiliate with it.

3. Waters, Jack, “Portrait of the Artist as a Sex Bomb,” POZ, January 2000, 58.

4. Waters, Jack, 61.

5. Jerome Caja: Nayland Blake & Justin Vivian Bond in Conversation, DUETS (New York: Visual AIDS, 2018), 17.

6. Jerome Caja: Nayland Blake & Justin Vivian Bond in Conversation, 17.

7. Jerome Caja: Nayland Blake & Justin Vivian Bond in Conversation, 43.

8. Sara Warner, Acts of Gaiety: LGBT Performance and the Politics of Pleasure, Reprint edition (University of Michigan Press, 2013), 9.

9. Julia Skelly, Radical Decadence: Excess in Contemporary Feminist Textiles and Craft (London ; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017), 1.

About the Author

Julia Harris (she/her) is a doctoral candidate in American Studies at Harvard University, where she studies the entanglements between lesbian and trans communities in the 1970s. She recently worked with librarians at Harvard to curate a digital exhibition featuring the ACT UP Oral History Project interviews. She is so excited to be joining Visual AIDS this summer as a research fellow, where she is researching the concept of embodied AIDS feminism as expressed through the works of several artists.