“I was an epidemic child, not birthed but raised by AIDS,” writes artist Oli Rodriguez in the prologue of the catalogue for The Papi Project, his multidisciplinary engagement with the death of his father–and other father figures–due to complications from AIDS. Rodriguez’s statement is deceptively simple. By labeling a childhood lived in the wake of the pandemic as being “raised,” he places HIV/AIDS firmly within the family unit, as an influential and guiding figure.
While discussing his specific rearing in what he described to me as “a queer nuclear family” in Chicago, Rodriguez speaks to the complex and challenging questions confronted by artists who investigate the intersection of HIV/AIDS and family. What does it mean to be in a family that includes HIV/AIDS? What does that family look like? What is inherited–the virus, its history, its stigma, its countless losses? How can a family member come to rectify personal and familial mourning within the wider context of the ongoing pandemic?
None of these questions come with easy answers. Family, particularly the biological family, can be a fraught topic in the context of HIV/AIDS, largely due to the socially marginalized communities that have historically been and still are at risk. The AIDS pandemic, according to Julianna Pidduck in her essay “Queer Kinship and Ambivalence: Autoethnographies by Jean Carlomusto and Richard Fung,” “exacerbated a kinship ontology characterized by exclusion, disappointment and discontinuity.” Conversely, the height of the pandemic also saw the rise of alternative forms of kinship, or, as Kath Weston termed, “families we choose,” as friends, lovers, and other community members came together to care for those affected by the disease.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, due to the tight-knit arts communities in which they inhabit, artists and exhibitions that aim to address the ongoing AIDS pandemic often primarily represent families of choice. Take, for example, the seminal 1989 exhibition Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing held at Artists Space, which brought together artists from curator Nan Goldin’s East Village community such as David Wojnarowicz, Mark Morrisroe, Kiki Smith, and Greer Lankton. Further demonstrating the bonds of kinship between the artists on the walls, the show temporarily held the working subtitle The Family of Nan. With this influential precedent, the majority of recent exhibitions about HIV/AIDS still predominantly feature artworks depicting families of choice–even shows that explore private, domestic responses to the pandemic such as 2017’s AIDS At Home: Art and Everyday Activism at the Museum of the City of New York, which included artists such as Luna Luis Ortiz’s tender photographs of the self-fashioned families in New York’s ballroom community and archives of communities of care like the GMHC’s Buddy Program. This isn’t to say there weren’t any works that focused on the biological family in the exhibition. In particular, Lori Grinker’s multidisciplinary installation Six Days From Forty created both a moving portrait of her late brother Marc, who died from complications from AIDS in 1996, and their relationship in his last days as she acted as his caregiver at home.
Like Grinker’s installation, over the years, there have been a growing number of cultural responses to the intersection of HIV/AIDS and family. These range from films such as Cecilia Alarondo’s Memories of a Penitent Heart, memoirs like Alysia Abbott’s Fairyland: A Memoir of My Father, personal essays including Mathew Rodriguez’s “Do You Know Who My Father Is?” on TheBody.com and academic studies such as Jaime Shearn Coan’s “‘I don’t know what made this ‘private’ in the first place.’: Neil Greenberg’s Not-About-AIDS Dance and The Disco Project” for Drain, about performer Neil Greenberg, whose own dance pieces engaged with the death of his brother Jon due to AIDS-related complications and his own HIV-positive status. Online platforms, such as The AIDS Memorial Instagram account and The Recollectors, a website and community platform for people who have lost parents to HIV/AIDS, have also emerged as significant social forums for people to share stories of lost family members, as well as the experiences of being raised in the pandemic.
Visual artists, too, are currently confronting HIV/AIDS and the family–both the biological family and families of choice. In their late 20s to early 40s, many of these artists were not yet adults during the height of the AIDS pandemic in the 1980s and 1990s, but still experienced–and continue to tangle with–its losses. When viewed together, these artists, including Rodriguez, Kia LaBeija, Pacifico Silano and Caroline Falby, reveal the diversity of familial relations to AIDS. While each of the four artists has lost a family member due to complications with AIDS, their stories and relationship to the crisis vary widely. Allowing for a range of gender, racial, and sexual identities, as well as serostatuses, these artists and their connection with family provide a snapshot of the numerous narratives of the pandemic, disrupting the notion that there is a singular overarching AIDS story.
Despite their differences, what brings these artists together is their continual engagement with loss and its remains as a means of producing an enduring cross-generational dialogue. In the introduction “Mourning Remains” of their edited collection Loss: The Politics of Mourning, David L. Eng and David Kazanjian position two questions in relation to mourning: What is lost? And what remains? “That is,” they write, “loss is inseparable from what remains, for what is lost is known only by what remains of it, by how these remains are produced, read and sustained.”
This, as they observe, “continuing dialogue with loss and its remains” is exemplified by the work of artist and performer Kia LaBeija, in particular her 2014 photographic series 24. Titled after her then age and the floor number of the Hell’s Kitchen apartment in which she lived with her late mother Kwan Bennett, the series of self-portraits documents LaBeija’s sustained connection with her mother, who died from an AIDS-related illness in 2004, as well as explores her own experience living with HIV. In 24, Kia’s enduring kinship with her family becomes symbolically embodied through physical spaces and personal objects.
Take, for example, Kia and Mommy, which presents LaBeija, in an elegant red sequined dress, lying on the floor of a bedroom in her childhood apartment with her legs placed on a dresser. In her arms, she cradles a photograph of her mother, hugging the frame as if posing with another figure. Kia and Mommy, rather than merely a self-portrait, is, in reality, a duel representation of mother and daughter. When she began to pursue photography, LaBeija recounts to Alex Fialho in ArtForum: “I had a moment of wishing I could take a portrait of my mother and me together. I was angry that I couldn’t–but then I realized I still could.” In this way, the image, at once, makes visible her mother’s absence and her continued presence through objects and her daughter. Kia and Mommy portrays, what Carolyn Dinshaw calls in Getting Medieval, “a touch across time.”
More subtly, Kia and Mommy also engages with families of choice in regards to LaBeija’s current role as the mother of the iconic House of LaBeija. In an interview with BH Is Voguing, LaBeija describes the ballroom community as another type of family, explaining that, for a young HIV-positive queer person of color, “it was the first time since my mother’s death…that I felt I was not alone.” Not only referencing this lineage by taking on the LaBeija name, the artist also uses her physicality and performance in her photographic work to create a connection with this chosen family. According to LaBeija, she “vogues” in her photographs by “using elements of fantasy and glamour that are part of the LaBeija history.” In Kia and Mommy, for instance, the artist, with her perfectly posed legs, dazzling dress, and direct gaze, offers an intergenerational nod to her foremothers in the ballroom family.
Like LaBeija’s 24 series, Oli Rodriguez’s The Papi Project began as a search for a “touch across time” with an ad posted to Craigslist by Rodriguez seeking men who may have had sex with his late father. It read: “I am looking for men who had sex with my dad. He was known as Troy, Peter, Pedro and other aliases in the late 70s/80s/early 90s before his death from complications of AIDS in 93. I’m his son and I want to hook up with you. I’m open to a drink, dinner or other ideas? I am giving, but no reciprocation. Below is his picture. If you had relations with him, please contact me.”
Rodriguez explained to me that he didn’t expect to receive any responses, seeing the posting as “a call of absence given that the men he [his father] knew and that were fathers to me passed.” While he did receive a variety of responses, which have been exhibited as a part of the project, including those questioning his mental health, he met with one man, which is documented in a two-channel video. In it, Rodriguez acts as a submissive, scrubbing the floor on his hands and knees in one frame, while being slapped by his dad’s potential former partner in the other. The man, however, is nearly invisible in this footage–only implied by a disembodied hand smacking the artist’s reddened face. Through this editing, Rodriguez highlights the loss of these “papis,” as well as the ephemeral connection between a queer son and his queer dad.
For three years, Rodriguez continued to launch a new phase of The Papi Project every year on his father’s birthday. This includes a series of desolate landscape photographs of former cruising spots in Chicago, Key West, Los Angeles, and Berlin, recording the loss of sexual community, and a series of archival images belonging to the artist’s father. The archival images, which exist both as prints and a slideshow set to disco music (reminiscent of Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency), depict, Rodriguez says, “a triad of queers, kids and cats.” From children’s birthday parties to his father’s friends and lovers cavorting in domestic settings, these family photographs, as well as The Papi Project as a whole, assert the existence of a “multi-ethnic, multi-gendered, multi-generational unit that persists even as its members are whittled away with each passing year,” as Kemi Adeyemi writes in “Landscapes of a Queer Life Lived.” Even under the specter of AIDS, in which “literally 95% of men in the photographs have all passed,” The Papi Project contrasts stereotypical imagery of illness and death by showing, as Rodriguez observes, “There is also family–there are bonds and there is laughter.”
Pacifico Silano also depicts a generation of gay men lost due to the AIDS pandemic in relation to his own familial loss in his photographic series Tear Sheets and Pages from a Blueboy Magazine. However, unlike both Rodriguez and LaBeija, Silano didn’t know his uncle Frank Silano, who was estranged from his traditional Brooklyn Italian family due to his gay identity. “His death was always a history, as if he never existed,” Silano tells me, “I feel that loss. Even though he’s no longer here, I feel a strong attachment to him. I feel like we’re sisters in arms.” With originally only one Polaroid of his uncle (after making work about this loss, he has since received more photographs from his uncle’s friends and former lovers) and limited information from his family, with whom the artist also has a fraught relationship, Silano began to wonder, feeling a link to this absent figure: “Who was this person? What did he do? What was he like? Who were the people he surrounded himself with? Where did he go dancing? What kind of music did he listen to?”
These questions are reflected in Silano’s artwork, which features imagery sourced from vintage gay male porn magazines from the 1970s, before the height of the pandemic, to represent a multitude of absences. By appropriating and rephotographing mass-produced images rather than the photograph of his uncle, Silano not only refers to the loss of one individual, but a more universal loss of an entire community of gay men, as well as the sexual freedom of disco-era gay culture. “I’m interested in the emotional and physical voids that we feel from an entire generation being swept away from AIDS,” he explains to me.
While Silano’s earlier Pages from a Blue Boy Magazine features a grid of the oft-mustachioed faces of porn stars from Blue Boy Magazine, leading viewers to question if these men are still alive, his Tear Sheets series and more recent work cut and crop parts of bodies, abstracting the figure. Rather than just focusing on the figural, these works also include views of desolate landscapes from the backgrounds of porn shoots and leave copious room for white space between the images in order to signify these voids. While understated, Silano’s alterations of these magazine pages correspond to José Esteban Muñoz’s observation of the ghosts of public sex in Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. He writes, “To see these ghosts we must certainly read the ‘specific dealings, specific rhythms’ that bring to life a lost experience that needs to be read in photo images, gaps, auras, residues and negations.”
In a similar manner, Silano’s photography also captures the haunting of lost family–biological family and experiences of kinship between men through these gaps, auras, and residues. Speaking to the ability of conceptual photography to record this lack, Silano notes, “An image of an obscure hand on a head, juxtaposed against a sky that’s vast and empty, can be this poignant metaphor. It can be about the experience of loss that I feel in relationship to my uncle. At the same time, it’s this broad stroke where people can enter into and imbue it with their own experience.”
Like Silano, Ontario-born, New York-based artist Caroline Falby uses porn and other found images to speak to her relation to HIV/AIDS and family. Falby’s work, though, expresses how the continued silence, shame, and stigma around AIDS can also be inherited. Proving that the AIDS crisis is not, in fact, over, Falby’s father died from complications from AIDS in 2015 in his 70s. At the time of his diagnosis, he was closeted about his sexuality and even after his passing, only a select few knew of his cause of death. Falby told me that his decline and death was a shock to the family. “My experience was an emotional rollercoaster,” she explains, “It was grounded in so many secrets.”
Family was previously a rich subject for Falby’s artistic practice, as seen in her installation Mother’s Death Tape, an allegory of an overbearing maternal figure through the imagery of Jonestown. With Kool-Aid cups, collages from vintage women’s magazines and signs that say, “Mom says what’s the magic word?” Falby not only draws from her relationship with her own mother, but also her life as a mother of twins. She also, ironically, previously exhibited in a show about HIV/AIDS– Framing AIDS, curated by Hector Canonge at the Queens Museum in 2009–years before she would know of her father’s diagnosis. Being HIV-negative with no immediate familial connection to HIV or AIDS at the time, her inclusion, she divulges, made her feel “like a fraud.”
Considering her “practice coming before this was so disclosing and personal,” Falby admits that creating work after her father’s death and her new connection to the pandemic has been a challenge. Titled Animations of Mortality, after a collection of Terry Gilliam’s art, Falby’s recent digitally printed and collaged works on board contain an amorphous mix of 1950s-style floral wallpaper from the 1980s, barely identifiable pieces of bodies from porn magazines, representations of viruses, and images of walkers and other medical equipment. With copious diaphanous cloud shapes, the works are indicative of the progression of the disease and its opportunistic infections with tumor-like forms, while in their abstraction, they seem to reflect the loss of clarity in the “coded conversations” she would have with her father about his illness and sexuality.
With her vintage sources, such as the prim flowered wallpaper, the works reference earlier more conservative periods, including the 1950s and even the Victorian era, pointing to the stigma of both the closet and an AIDS diagnosis that her dad felt and that she, inadvertently, finds herself taking on. Unsure of disclosing her father’s sexuality and cause of death in deference to his wishes, she mirrors that remaining emotional chaos of non-disclosure in her work. She reveals, “The shame narrative is something that’s not expressed–the stigma of having a parent or a relative dying and the resentment that comes from someone passing on their shame. It’s an inherited shame.”
In Loss: The Politics of Mourning, Eng and Kazanjian state, “To impute loss a creative instead of a negative quality may initially seem counterintuitive.” With the long and expansive legacy of visual art made in the context of the ongoing HIV/AIDS pandemic, finding a creative quality in loss may be less surprising than Eng and Kazanjian theorize. But for artists who explore HIV/AIDS in the family, despite the diversity of their artwork and narratives, there seems to be a central drive to continually and creatively transform loss to maintain “an active and open relationship with history”–both in terms of their family history and the larger ongoing history of HIV/AIDS. By engaging in an intergenerational dialogue with the memories of their biological families and families of choice, the artists, taken together, construct, as José Muñoz articulates in Cruising Utopia, “a politics that ‘carries’ our dead with us into battles for the present and future.” As Silano expressed to me: “Some people ask me, ‘Why are you making work about the past? What about now?’ But this is now. This is about now. What is lost and what do we have to carry on?”
By questioning what we have to carry on, these four artists and their multifaceted articulations of the intersection of HIV/AIDS and family raise the notion of inheritance. What is inherited through a family affected by HIV/AIDS or even, a culture that has been transformed by the pandemic? In “’I don’t know what made this ‘private’ in the first place’: Neil Greenberg’s Not-About-AIDS Dance and The Disco Project” for Drain, Jaime Shearn Coan writes, “My own position, as a familial and cultural inheritor, is one who is haunted.” As someone who has been publishing about HIV/AIDS since 2010, but has been writing about AIDS since my freshman year in college when reading David Wojnarowicz’s Close To The Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration put my own familial experiences of loss due to complications with AIDS into a cultural context, I am a familial and cultural inheritor who is haunted too. This haunting also transferred into my curatorial work. When co-curating Party Out Of Bounds: Nightlife As Activism Since 1980 for Visual AIDS in 2015, I recall remarking to several colleagues that I felt as if I was dealing with ghosts. Even if many of the included artists were still alive, there was still a sense of responsibility in honoring and producing a curatorial dialogue with those who were not.
The cultural inheritance of AIDS isn’t only for people born with HIV, living with the virus, or those, like me, who have experienced a family member dying due to AIDS-related illnesses. When part of a culture that sustained losses due to the pandemic, whether the New York arts or LGBTQ+ community, the absence of those who would potentially have acted as mentors or made up our families of choice is inherited, too, as is their continued presence through their remaining archives and cultural objects. Admittedly, it seems strange to attribute silences and limitations in the mainstream representations of HIV/AIDS, and copious amounts of loss as something that is inherited. However, I understand this familial and cultural inheritance as something ephemeral and not always conscious. It exists as a sustained and potentially haunted drive to revisit, rework, and revise the gaps in this inheritance, trying to find that touch across time even if it’s through what remains.
Emily Colucci is a writer, curator and co-founder of Filthy Dreams, a blog analyzing art and culture through a queer lens and a touch of camp. Emily is the recipient of a 2016 Creative Capital|Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant for Filthy Dreams. Writing for print magazines, online venues, and exhibition catalogues, Emily has contributed to VICE Magazine, POZ Magazine, Flaunt Magazine, Muse Magazine, ArtVoices Magazine, Salon, LA Review of Books, Art Papers Magazine, Hi-Fructose Magazine, Malibu Magazine, Art F City, Ms. Magazine, Frontrunner Magazine, CRUSH Fanzine, New York Magazine’s Bedford and Bowery, WhiteWall Magazine, among others. In 2017, she curated a group exhibition, Night Fever at Pittsburgh’s Future Tenant, on disco and its aesthetic legacy. She also co-curated Visual AIDS’s annual exhibition Party Out Of Bounds: Nightlife As Activism Since 1980 at LaMaMa Galleria, as well as its satellite installation Courtship Disorder by John Walter in London’s White Cubicle Toilet Gallery at the late George & Dragon Pub. Party Out Of Bounds was featured in I-D Magazine, OUT Magazine, Hyperallergic, The Art Newspaper, Unicorn Booty, New York Magazine’s Bedford + Bowery, Posture Mag, Paper Magazine, and Sang Bleu. Deemed (by herself) the “art critic of trash,” told that she writes from a “contrarian personal sensibility” and that she represented “everything stupid about the Internet in 2017 in one tweet,” Emily is interested in nightlife, trash, AIDS activism, and queer activism in art. emily-colucci.com
5 See also: Visual AIDS’s panel The Personal And The Political: Losing Parents to AIDS, with Alysia Abbott, Kia Benbow, Mathew Rodriguez, and Sarah Schulman, hosted by the New York Public Library, which is archived on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BnZsMDEZV98).
10 “Five Questions for Kia LaBeija,” BH Is Voguing (22 February 2016), accessed online January 12, 2019, http://www.bhisvoguing.com/kia-labeija-english/.
17 Jaime Shearn Coan, ‘I don’t know what made this ‘private’ in the first place.’: Neil Greenberg’s Not-About-AIDS Dance and The Disco Project,” Drain Vol. 13:2 (2016), accessed January 12, 2019, http://drainmag.com/i-dont-know-what-made-this-private-in-the-first-place-neil-greenbergs-not-about-aids-dance-and-the-disco-project/.