Dec. 1 is a day for many to reflect: to remember lives lost, to push forward efforts of finding a cure.
But Georgia Equality has slightly different plans for this World AIDS Day. Instead of commemorating death, it’s encouraging the public to celebrate life. Through an interactive art exhibit held at Atlanta’s Gallery 874, organizers will put on display the daily life of what it’s like to be a Georgian living with HIV.
“People are no longer dying in droves from AIDS, [but] a lot of people are still dying of HIV/AIDS because of the stigma,” said Emily Brown, field organizer for Georgia Equality. “The whole exhibit is called Living With. We really want to highlight that people are living with HIV, and the stigma, shame and other issues that cause people to talk about HIV are why it’s still deadly.”
Through the exhibit — held in conjunction with Georgia Equality’s annual legislative luncheon — Georgia lawmakers and the public will not only be able to hear policy briefs, they’ll be able to experience a few moments in the life of those affected by the policies.
“A lot of folks in the community of HIV advocates, and people who are in communities highly impacted by HIV, have a lot of artists,” Brown said. “No one on any official channel was talking about HIV. Artists have been forced to take an advocacy role. We realized there were people, even in our own circle, who had things to say that weren’t easily articulated in a policy brief or a quick kind of PowerPoint presentation.”
What they came up with was an art installation, a sort of modern interpretation of the AIDS Memorial Quilt.
“We didn’t actually intend to do an exhibit. It just became that. Now it’s enormous,” Brown said. “There’s so many installations, so many pieces of art that are intriguing.”
Comic strip art, interactive pieces featured in exhibit
The backbone of the Living With exhibit is a series of installations which she called “living spaces.”
“This is where an artist or group of artists work one-on-one with a person who is HIV-positive to tell their life story through a four-dimensional space in time in the gallery,” Brown said.
A muralist tells his subject’s story through large comic strip art. Some are interactive, including the piece that includes opportunities for visitors to write messages of support — a play on the concept of “it takes a village” to support a person living with HIV, Brown said.
“There’s one that has a telephone in the middle of it and people pick up the telephone and hear the young person and the family’s reaction to his diagnosis with HIV,” Brown said.
One installation is by Emily Getsay, a conceptual artist who followed her subject around for 24 hours and documented his entire day. Together, they came up with a story that told not only what the day-to-day looked like, but also the struggles and the “simplicity of just living,” she said.
“The title of the installation that I’m doing is called ‘Habit,’” Getsay said. “The idea behind this is the audience walks into the installation, it consumes them, and they’re automatically forced to put themselves in that frame, into the mind of someone living with HIV.”
She said prior to meeting her subject about a month ago, she didn’t know much about HIV/AIDS.
“Personally, it was a huge growing experience. They’ve actually become one of my really close friends now — I’m getting kind of emotional because this person is super awesome,” Getsay said. “The main piece that I’m trying to convey with my installation is that we’re all the same. Every person, we’re all the same species and we all have these struggles and these things we have to get over. Daily battles and things we wake up in the morning and we’re like ‘Gosh, don’t want to have to deal with that.’ I want it to be almost like a connection for the audience to that emotion in themselves, and also to that emotion that people who live with HIV go through.”
‘Art speaks loudly in provocative ways’
When Brown put out the call for artists, the response was incredible. In addition to the living spaces installations, Living With features pieces contributed from masters of all media — a haute couture jacket made from medical supplies, for example, and in the case of socio-political artist Larry Jens Anderson, a stripped-down version of his “Dance of Death” pieces.
“The first three successful AIDS drawings, or drawings about AIDS that I did, were stick figures made out of knives,” Anderson said. “In my studio I had this Crock Pot full of kitchen knives. I went in one day and I dumped them out and I started making stick figures out of them, with knives for penises. That could be a rape thing; the danger of sex. I liked him a lot.”
The original exhibit included those drawings and more, surrounded by knives and hypodermic needles stuck into the wall. It was intensely personal, Anderson said.
“One of the things that artists can do, and have done for centuries even if it’s uncomfortable, they’ll paint it or draw about it,” he said. “With AIDS, people can have it and never know it and it may manifest into a disease or it may not, depending on the person. And these knives … that was a metaphor for disease, or invasion.”
The knives won’t be in the wall for Living With, but Anderson has other pieces that did make the cut. Some of his Dick drawings — from the children’s book series of Dick and Jane — will hang for the two-day show.
“I’m putting in a drawing called ‘If I’m Good Nobody Will Notice,’ which is a lot of gay people … People only notice them because they’re different,” Anderson said.
This exhibit, too, is a different way for the public to view HIV/AIDS. Brown said it’s necessary to remind people that HIV wasn’t just a disease of the ‘80s and suddenly over. There are still individuals contracting the disease and living with it on a daily basis, even if no one wants to discuss it.
“The predominant narrative about HIV is ‘don’t talk about it,’” Brown said. “35 years into this epidemic, that’s where we are. We’re whispering about HIV. Art speaks loudly in provocative ways about whatever it’s trying to say. It doesn’t have the constraints of a formal narrative of life. We needed to push the narrative. People are living with HIV. They’re great. They’re living their lives, and not talking about it is not doing anything for anyone.”
World AIDS Day — A Candlelight Vigil Hosted by Atlanta Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence Dec. 1, 7:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Atlanta Beltline at 10th and Monroe Free to attend; please bring candles. www.facebook.com/events/1777786155825489
World AIDS Day at Fulton County Department of Health and Wellness Refreshments, games and free HIV testing Dec. 1, 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. Aldredge Health Center 99 Jesse Hill Jr. Dr. SE Atlanta, GA 30303 www.fultoncountyga.gov/dhw-home