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DePaul Art Museum exhibit explores AIDS pandemic

Charlene Haparimwi

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The story surrounding HIV/AIDS has new voices leading the conversation.

With advances in medicine, the beginning deterioration of the horrific stigma, and the fact that HIV/AIDS is not viewed as a death sentence anymore has contributed to our societal ideology surrounding that the disease does not need to be at the forefront of our public thought anymore. But HIV/AIDS is not something that died off in the 90’s.

There is still no cure for the disease. According to the CDC, as of 2014 young people from the ages of 13-24 account for more than 1 in 5 new HIV diagnoses each year, and the majority of new infections are experienced by young, gay or bisexual-identified black and Latino men. HIV/AIDS is still on-going and prevalent.

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DePaul student Lindsay Holzman looks at the “One day this kid will get larger” exhibit. (Photo courtesy of NICOLE ROSS)

The DePaul Art Museum understood this was an important conversation that still needs to be had and gave space for four months to a powerful exhibit called “One day this kid will get larger,” which featured the work of twenty emerging contemporary artists born after the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

The exhibit, which closed on April 2 featured artists that represented various marginalized groups, such as women and people of color, and young people who have been affected by the HIV/AIDS epidemic but whose experiences are often underrepresented in the history of the crisis.

The uplifting of marginalized voices really resonated with students who saw the exhibit.

“I really reveled in the intersectionality of the space we have upstairs, because when we are taught about HIV/AIDS it’s always just a narrative about gays, without even necessarily telling you what kind of gays or what their experiences are like,” said senior Yasmin Zacaria Mitchell, a dramaturgy major and student worker at the DePaul Art Museum. “But art is about living and loving, it’s a celebration, rather than just talking about the death and destruction. So when you couple that with the diversity of the marginalized, the different communities that don’t have a voice, we’ve given them that space to feel empowered, and given them the opportunity to help eradicate the stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS.”

The stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS still has strength within our society. According to AIDS there are currently about 25,500 people living with HIV in Chicago, with the number of new HIV diagnoses increasing about a thousand people per year. 80% of people living with HIV in Chicago are men, 20% are women, with the number of people diagnosed disproportionately affecting black and brown communities. 50% of people living with HIV are black, 19% Latinx and 25% white.

To showcase the wide array of people living with HIV the exhibition was guest curated by Danny Orendorff, whose work explores the histories of social-justice activism and theories of gender and sexuality.

“One day this kid will get larger” was loosely grouped together around the sub-themes of childhood, education and nightlife/pop culture, and was presented concurrently with the touring sister exhibition ArtAIDSAmerica, at the newly founded Alphawood Gallery which is one block from the DePaul Art Museum.

Photojournalist Katja Heinemann’s art series, “On Borrowed Time/Growing Up With HIV,” was a collaboration with the staff and campers at Camp Heartland (now known as One Heartland) in Minnesota, who were either born HIV-positive, are living with HIV, or had family members who died or are living with the virus, according to the piece’s description.

The interdisciplinary exhibit which consisted of visual photographs, as well as interviews and sing-a-longs with the campers struck a chord with DePaul senior Claire Sandberg, an art history major and research assistant at the DePaul Art Museum.

“The collection of photographs and audio by Katja Heinemann was the most moving piece for me,” Sandberg said. “The work was inspiring because it is an excellent example of a supportive and strong community for these children who have been affected by HIV/AIDS and shows this wonderful and supportive space of hope.”

This feeling of a supportive space of hope is shared by one of the artists in the show, Vincent Chevalier, who created the video “So…When Did You Figure Out That You Had AIDS?” The video performance was a reflection of the media environment in 1996, when HIV/AIDS was a stigmatizing and terrifying reality for Chevalier, a queer youth who grew up to be an adult survivor. Chevalier speaks of the importance of having young voices guide the new narrative of “AIDS art” along with the older voices.

“It is important that we allow for new voices to take up more space in the conversation about HIV/AIDS,” Chevalier said. “While the recent trend of ‘revisitation” of the “AIDS art’ of the past is a necessary gesture, we’ve seen how this canonization of works by white, cisgendered men has contributed to the erasure of other perspectives and histories.”

When it comes to the new voices of today the effects of social media contribute to the free distribution of art that moves us.

“I think it’s important not to commodify AIDS or canonize it as a period in art history,” a queer feminist artist in the exhibit, Angela Davis Fegan, said. “I didn’t make the pieces with the intention of selling them.”

Fegan created handmade posters out of her late father’s old jeans and ethically sourced products such as rose petal, plant matter and linseed oil. Slogans on the posters say things like “We Bleed  For Our Flag All Over This Dance Floor,” and “Visibility, Inclusion, Survival.” She encouraged people to share the letterpress text-based artworks with photos on social media with the hashtag #lavendermenace, a reference to her citywide poster project and the group of lesbian feminists that formed during the 1970’s Second Wave feminism.

The DePaul Art Museum has three upcoming exhibits starting on April 27 that amplify marginalized voices. “A Matter of Conscience,” is an exhibit with artistic approaches to politically charged content and social issues, “Vessels of Genealogies,” which are Dominican-American artist Firelei Baez’s large-scale paintings representing the beauty and political implications of hairstyles and tattoos, and “To Name It is to See It,” which is Vietnamese artist Hu’o’ng Ngo’s reframing of connections of language, gender, and visuality through the lens of postcolonial subjectivity.

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DePaul Art Museum exhibit explores AIDS pandemic