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Joseph Varisco, Program Coordinator for Art AIDS America Chicago, writes about the first exhibition to explore how the AIDS crisis forever changed American art
Four years ago, I was diagnosed HIV+. Since that time, I have been working across communities with one vital directive: create productive, powerful and engaging interactions. As a performing arts curator and producer, I use public spaces to generate this experience. I have had the awesome opportunity to work with some of Chicago’s most vibrant artistic forces who use their creative work as tools to confront stigma and reinvent narratives about what it means to live as HIV+ today. In a time when visibility is a form of political resistance against erasure of identity, these artists relentlessly hold accountable each of us, responsible to one another as agents of change.
What does that look like? I asked Chicago-based artists doing work in HIV/AIDS culture what they are doing currently — and who they turn to for inspiration.
Juicebox (formerly Dirty Grits): “Every breath I take is part of the revolution. Being black, poz, queer, and non-binary, walking down the street is an act of resistance against societal norms. My art is a direct mirror into the emotional rollercoaster that haunts my reality. I feel like most oppressed people are a heartbeat away from going postal, especially in our current political climate. I'm always so close to catching a case! Performance art gives the opportunity to yell, fight and burn shit down. I use my art to highlight the indignity of the oppressor, and to tell the stories of my people. I get to control the narrative, empower minorities, while destroying the enemy every time. It is the best therapy I have found for de(opp)ression. My hope is that my performances touch the hearts of folks who need to feel connected. I want folks to know their existence is important and beautiful. I think that through it all, we all need a reason to keep breathing. I know I do.”
Phillip Lambert X Blacknbrilliant: “And Then There Was BLAK (Building Lives with Art & Knowledge), or ATTB for short, is an art collective comprised of music producer, writer and online content creator Jordan Gillespie X gillyszn; and myself, Phillip Lambert X blaknbrilliant, an actor, rapper, creative director, social engagement and media aficionado. We came together to form ATTB as a direct response in solidarity with the #BLACKLIVESMATTER movement. We are millennials who want to use our platforms to bring about positive, influential and creative representation of black and brown bodies while they are alive. As a performance artist who recently sero-converted, it is important to be transparent and live in my full truth. Only from those truths can authentic and moving art manifest. Throughout history, people who belong to intersecting identities (black, queer, positive, trans, fat and low-income, to name a few) have been ostracized, deemed unimportant and invisible. The
work that ATTB is doing is needed in these tumultuous times to give an accurate voice, face and space to individuals who, by just existing, are bringing about radical change and challenging state sanctioned violence. ATTB believes that now more than ever is a time for the revolution to be televised.”
Artists to watch: Moor Mother is the dopest person on the scene. Her mix of racial turnt lyrics, nightmarish beats and voice morphs through music genres. I beg you to be woke to her. Ekua Adisa is a spoken word queer, non-binary revolutionist who attacks white supremacy through poetry. They are the spearhead in grassroots reparations movement.
Some other artists who are breaking down barriers and you should be on the lookout for are: Lloyd The Abstrac, Black queer photographer (@Lloydtheabstrac), Jenzi Russell, Black queer choreographer, movement coach and fat phobia activist (@officialjenzi), and Phillip B. Williams, Black queer poet & Emory University Poetry Fellow (@pbw_poet). Follow them, support them, and lift them up.
What importance does art hold right now? Answer the challenge for yourself by engaging with more public and free art this winter at Art AIDS America Chicago, Dec. 1, 2016 - April 2, 2017 and QUEER, ILL + OKAY, Dec. 9, 10, 16 and 17 at Oracle Productions.
About Art AIDS America Chicago:
Art AIDS America Chicago is the local - and largest - iteration of this groundbreaking national exhibition which underscores the deep and unforgettable presence of HIV in American art. The exhibition will feature some 140+ significant contemporary works on display at the Alphawood Gallery (2401 N. Halsted Street), a temporary space created in a former bank by the Alphawood Foundation to bring the exhibition to its only Midwest venue. The Alphawood Foundation, a Chicago-based, grant-making private foundation working for an equitable, just and humane society, is proudly presenting Art AIDS America here. Each year, the Foundation awards grants to organizations, primarily in the areas of advocacy, architecture and preservation, the arts and arts education, promotion and protection of the rights of LGBT citizens and people living with HIV/AIDS, and other human and civil rights.
Art AIDS America Chicago will be open Wednesdays and Thursdays from 11am – 8pm, and Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from 11am -6pm. Admission to the Alphawood Gallery is free; however, to ensure entry, timed admission passes may be reserved by visiting ArtAIDSAmericaChicago.org. Walk-ups will be available on a limited basis.