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AIDS activism

[Premiere] AIDS Activists Took Over a Gallery in Chicago

Artist Karen Finley is known for addressing homophobia and misogyny during the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis.

Sami Emory

The End of Fascism... (L to R) Karen Finley, Joan Giroux, Michael Lee Bridges, Jane Beachy, Christopher Audain, Isaac Gomez, Emilio Rojas, Sean Parris, Morgan McNaught, Maggie Mascal, Joseph Varisco, Ivan Bujan. All photos by Andrei Venghiac, courtesy of Alphawood Gallery.

On an afternoon this spring, echoing off the whitewashed walls of a Chicago gallery, voices of HIV+ artists rose in tones both mournful and defiant. It was the sound of Karen Finley's Anti-Workshop: A Call to Action , an artist takeover of the brand-new Alphawood Gallery where the Art AIDS America exhibition made its last stop on a national tour.

The "call" was 18 participating artists asking an audience to listen, touch, see, and feel for themselves the challenges of art-driven AIDS activism. The essence of what transpired over the takeover's two hour duration was captured in a video, premiering today on Creators.

Thumbnail image: Joseph Ravens

Site-specific additions, like Finley's, are characteristic of Art AIDS America. In the New York edition of the show at The Bronx Museum, for instance, co-curators Jonathan David Katz and Rock Hushka included works of artists deeply connected to that borough, like Willie Cole and Glenn Ligon.

In the same vein, Chicago's show mirrored experiences of the audience through local artists. Assistant Curator John Neff tells Creators that viewers found these inclusions relatable. They found themselves in familiar places, viewing familiar faces in the photographs of artists like Patric McCoy and Oli Rodriguez. And on the Faces of AIDS posters that were papered around town in 2000. Or even in Sharon Zurek's 2001 TV drama Kevin's Room, "about the lives of black gay men in Chicago grappling with HIV/AIDS and other challenges."

Emilio Rojas

"In [this exhibition], often for the first time, these works were exhibited in the context of artistic responses to the epidemic from across the nation," Neff says. These local additions to the Art AIDS America program "provided points of connection for local viewers."

Alphawood Gallery's Program Manager and contributing artist Joseph Varisco adds that, "[The local artists] added a much desired expansion on the landscape of representation within the whole of the exhibit."

As Varisco points out, the Chicago artists increased representation in the show of artists and communities of color as well as intergenerational, non-binary, and trans artists. "Seeing through the lens of various Chicago neighborhoods in response to HIV/AIDS," he adds, "proves the unforgettable historical and cultural significance AIDS art has and continues to make on our communities."

Bea Cordelia

Finley's group performance, in particular, solidified this local significance in the here and now. Varisco says that, "Visitors expressed a powerfully cathartic encounter" with the Anti-Workshop and that "both tears of sorrow and celebration" were paid as tributes "to those who have died, those who survive, and those whose legacies have finally begun to be through the exhibit."

At the mention of legacy, I ask both Neff and Varisco why now is a good time to revisit the longstanding love affair between art and HIV/AIDS activism. "It never stopped being a good time to acknowledge this relationship," responds Varisco. "Everything that is vital to us about art right now was vital then. We have been separated from the generational relationships that might have passed this vitality down."

Emilio Rojas

Neff continues, "Recently, somebody sent me an email that began: 'We have reached a time in history where there are actually more people living with HIV world-wide than those who have passed away.' Especially in white middle-class America, the AIDS epidemic is often thought of in the past tense."

"This statistic―36.7 million living with HIV/AIDS today, an estimated 35 million dead since the start of the epidemic―is evidence enough that HIV/AIDS continues to affect all forms of culture worldwide, even if it is less visible in the art galleries of the West than it was 25 years ago."

Joseph Ravens

For more information on Chicago's rendition of Art AIDS America, visit the show's website.

Full credits:

Christopher Audain, Jane Beachy, Sid Branca, Michael Lee Bridges, Ivan Bujan, Bea Cordelia, Sean Estelle, Ricardo Gamboa, Joan Giroux, Isaac Gomez, Chris Kellner, Maggie Mascal, Morgan McNaught, Sean Parris, Himabindu Poroori, Joseph Ravens, Emilio Rojas, and Joseph Varisco.

Related:

This Museum is Celebrating 50 Years of Diverse Queer Experience

Intimate Collages Celebrate Queerness and Feminism in Print

How the AIDS Epidemic Was an Attack on Imagination