Despite being only 12% of the population, African Americans account for 44% of all new adolescent and adult HIV infections.
Last October, the Tacoma Art Museum and The Bronx Museum of the Arts began the first leg of their critically-acclaimed traveling exhibit, Art AIDS America. The issue? Museum curators very nearly excluded the ethnic group most affected by HIV, opting to feature the works of four black artists out of 107. When confronted with the blatant erasure and lack of black representation within the exhibit, TAM museum curator Rock Hushka, who seemed to channel Ronald Reagan himself, told the black community, "You'll have to wait for the next one."
Local activists belonging to the Tacoma Action Collective responded quickly, organizing a 30-person die-in, inside the exhibition, to mourn the 700,000+ black Americans who have been, or currently are, affected by HIV. Demonstration #StopErasingBlackPeople demanded alterations to the roster to include more black artists, more black staff throughout the TAM leadership, and all levels of staff and boards retraining in Undoing Institutional Racism. After initially claiming that alterations to the exhibit could not be made, TAM agreed to all protester demands. A victory, indeed, but there’s much to be said about black erasure in the arts and how health crisis in black communities are perceived and dealt with by society as a whole.
Art AIDS America’s mission was to depict how art history has been affected by the HIV crisis, not to use art to explain the crisis. "First I need to emphasize this is not an exhibition about the crisis, but about the way the general arc of American art history was bent by the crisis. This is a small distinction but an important one." The absence of black artists implies that the black community and its artistic members have not been affected by HIV and/or that those experiences have never been interpreted through art. Which...doesn't make any sense.
"2015 was a calendar year for whitewashing and when it comes to AIDS we are still dying. Visibility is critical," artist Chris Jordan tells us.
Art AIDS America travels to Kennesaw State University in Atlanta (Feb. 20 - May 22) TAC activists encourage you to come out and help keep AAA, its curators and institutions honest. "Saying that you're going to get more Black artists is good and well", the collective says "but building that engagement on the ground takes a complete reconstruction of trust. They're even still being stubborn with programming so we need the public to help us hold them accountable." AAA will also be in Chicago and The Bronx.
By Erin White, AFROPUNK contributor
Above photos by Saiyare Rafael
Above photo by Felicia Jarvis