Curators decided not to commission this piece from Kia Labeija. She made it anyway.
Curators decided not to commission this piece from Kia Labeija. She made it anyway. Courtesy of the artist

The picture above is a large, bright, bold print of a young woman and the doctor she has been seeing since she was four years old, the doctor she shared with her mother until her mother died of HIV/AIDS, the doctor she never expected she'd be able to be old enough to visit in a grown-up's red prom dress.

That self-portrait, only on view on Labeija's web site at the moment, is the piece Labeija envisioned making for the landmark exhibition Art, AIDS, America. When Tacoma Art Museum curator Rock Hushka, who co-organized the exhibition with curator Jonathan Katz, first approached Labeija, he discussed a new commission with her. As the months went by, the commission disappeared, but Labeija waited with excitement for the October 2015 opening of Art, AIDS, America in Tacoma anyway.

She was devastated when it opened.

Of 107 artists, she was the only female African American artist in the show. The only representation in the show of mother-to-child transmission. And the only representation of a woman artist living with HIV.

"It hurt," Labeija said. "We're very, very silenced. We're not really funded. We don't have community. And as a child born with HIV who lost her mother at 14, I've felt very, very alone for a long time. To be a part of this show and to still feel like I'm standing alone just really affected me in a deep way."

The lack of Black artists in Art, AIDS, America brought a wave of protests in December from the Tacoma Action Collective, which in turn yielded apologies and promises from Hushka and Tacoma Art Museum director Stephanie Stebich.

Labeija, on her web site, wrote an acid reply to Hushka's apology.

"What's done is done," she wrote. "An apology will not make a house slave, who has been raped repeatedly by a slave owner, feel forgiveness and compassion. Black and Brown Womyn — both Cisgender and Transgender — are affected immensely by HIV/AIDS, and I am sick and tired of under representation. I am sick and tired, physically, from this virus; passed down to me in the womb of a Womyn who was a survivor of rape and incest, and was sick and tired, until she died of AIDS. It's that same sorry that keeps an abused Womyn in a relationship with a man who continues to beat her, who continues to say he didn’t mean it, until one day, he kills her — and he is sorry about that too."

With the response, Labeija also posted a new work:

Kia Labeija, Your White Walls Can Kiss My Black Ass, 2015.
Kia Labeija, Your White Walls Can Kiss My Black Ass, 2015. Courtesy of the artist

And then, last week, came a very moving video, put out by the Zuckerman Museum of Art at Kennesaw State University, where Art, AIDS, America is attempting to make some amends.

In the video, Labeija and Sur Rodney (Sur) describe what they believe went wrong with Art, AIDS, America, and how it made them feel. They also discuss overlooked artists who ought to be included. As Sur Rodney (Sur) tells it, Art, AIDS, America curators consulted with him as they were creating the show, and he noticed the problem and considered it art-world business as usual.

"A lot of the anger comes out because I think that there were discussions with the curators," he said.

One writer's text, which addressed racial underrepresentation in the visual culture of HIV/AIDS, "never really made it in there [into the catalog]... all those [concerns] seemed to be pushed by the wayside to create more of a show that could be acceptable to the institutions."

If that was their motivation, it only partially worked.

"To our great disappointment," TAM director Stebich told me, "we had trouble securing a national tour for this show."

The exhibition is in secondary institutions in the cities where it's touring.

TAM itself is a secondary institution for whom Art, AIDS, America was a major, risky undertaking. TAM, too, exists in a larger world of museums and art institutions that demands big names—and big names most often belong to white men with links to power and media. (The museum world is often also overly self-satisfied with minor or token gestures.)

The same was the case in the early days of HIV/AIDS, Sur Rodney (Sur) said.

Art, AIDS, America "became a political/institutional sort of thing, rather than trying to address what it really needs to address, which is AIDS in America and what kind of production is happening around that," he explained. "There is a lot of production around that that is not represented in the show."

He dug a little, and "it was all there, it was just lying below the surface, some really amazing stuff... To sort of ignore that is, I don't know, I won't say irresponsible, but I will say, I don't know, inexcusable, really."

Whitfield Lovell is one of the Black artists added to the show in Atlanta. This is his 2008 Kin XXXII (Run Like the Wind).
Whitfield Lovell is one of the Black artists added to the show in Atlanta. This is his 2008 Kin XXXII (Run Like the Wind). Courtesy of the Bronx Museum

Tacoma Action Collective had three demands in its protests: That TAM add works by Black artists to the show, that TAM hire more staffers of color in leadership positions and on leadership tracks, and that TAM staff and board undergo Undoing Institutional Racism training.

Stebich told me the museum is planning the anti-racism workshops this spring. She also said that museum has asked the city's equity office for help in training, hiring, and retaining staffers of color. (Many organizations have anti-bias committees to support work toward real equity. TAM's board, and the boards of other museums, too, should form one.)

A sign was posted at the gallery entrances during the final days of Art, AIDS, America at TAM. It began, "HIV continues to disproportionally affect African American communities... These unacceptably high rates of HIV transmission are the product of structural racism in American society. Many factors exacerbate the impact of HIV, including but not limited to income inequality, gender discrimination, an affordable housing crisis, disproportionate rates of incarceration, challenges to quality education, and access to affordable medical care and antiviral medicines."

It added that TAM "will strongly encourage each museum to address the critique of the exhibition, including how to better represent Black artists within the exhibition and its programming, and create forums to discuss the impact of HIV/AIDS in the Black community."

Bethany Joy Collins, Protest, 1953, 2014. Collins is one of the Black artists whose work is added to the exhibition in Atlanta.
Bethany Joy Collins, Protest, 1953, 2014. Collins is one of the Black artists whose work is added to the exhibition in Atlanta. Courtesy of the artist

Atlanta is the first test case. The Zuckerman Museum of Art has added seven Black artists to the Art, AIDS, America checklist and has also organized its own exhibition of the impressive local history of HIV/AIDS art and activism in the Atlanta area (which is ongoing). (Early reviews—here and here—make mention of the added artists but don't provide details.)

The Zuckerman also produced the video I posted above, which was shot at the Bronx Museum of the Arts.

Most of the added works at the Zuckerman come from the collection of the Bronx Museum, where Art, AIDS, America opens in June. They're also taken from the Zuckerman's collection, and a video work by Marlon Riggs is included that would have been in Tacoma, curators Hushka and Katz say, but is only permitted in venues that do not charge admission (the Zuckerman and Bronx museums are both free).

Alvin Baltrops portraits of gay New York under the piers, this one featuring two men and a building cut up by Gordon Matta-Clark, were added to the Zuckerman iteration of Art, AIDS, America.
Alvin Baltrops portraits of gay New York under the piers, this one featuring two men and a building cut up by Gordon Matta-Clark, were added to the Zuckerman iteration of Art, AIDS, America. Courtesy of the Bronx Museum

"The Zuckerman was not part of the curation for this show, nor were we a sponsor, we are just simply a venue," director Justin Rabideau told me by phone. "Typically we would not be able to make these changes, insertions and edits. The door opened to do these interventions through the work of the activists."

The Zuckerman has a professional staff of seven, all of whom are white.

Rabideau and Zuckerman senior curator Teresa Bramlette Reeves pointed to the lack of racial equity across the museum field, and how glaring it is in Atlanta. "It's very real here," said Bramlette Reeves, a Georgia native.

The Zuckerman "struggle[s] with doing something once and then moving on to the next thing," Rabideau said, "and that's where we can really fail." The museum plans to continue the community roundtable it convened in order to improve racial representation in and around Art, AIDS, America, and like TAM to bring inclusion and equity training to the staff.

"It's very easy to fall down that trap of being blind to something," he said.

Over the last two months, I have tried to track down more details about how Art, AIDS, America was blind to racial inclusion while it was coming together.

Hushka spent a decade organizing it. Most of that time, Hushka was working side by side with Katz. From conversations with both of them and TAM director Stebich, I gathered that both curators had their own agendas, and both readily admit that racial representation was not top on their list of priorities. They both say that in reflecting the biases of the art world itself, they replicated those biases. It's a bit of a tautology, and not a very satisfying answer.

"I should have paid more attention and been more articulate about the degree to which African American artists were not experiencing a level playing field in the museum world at that moment," Katz said. The exhibition is flawed "if your standard of measurement is the demographic of American Americans in HIV culture today. But that wasn't what the original conception of the show was."

One example of a Black artist whose work was considered but rejected is Jean-Michel Basquiat. Katz said he proposed Basquiat's painting Riding Death, picturing a figure on top of a skeleton, to a committee of early advisers, and they all together decided it did not fit the requirement at the time that each work address HIV/AIDS directly. There was no evidence that Basquiat intended Riding Death as a reference to HIV/AIDS specifically, Katz said, so the committee shelved the idea.

In retrospect, when the exhibition was later expanded to include many works that do not reference HIV/AIDS, that decision no longer made sense, Katz said. He did not think to raise the painting again, he said.

In part that was because of a difference between Hushka and Katz. Katz delicately described that he was not the author of the thesis put forward by Hushka that even artworks not explicitly about HIV/AIDS are still, always about HIV/AIDS on some level, because of the vast impact of the epidemic. Katz had envisioned a more historically limited exhibition, of the early, pre-cocktail years, years of art history he lived through and knows well.

Ronald Lockett, Holocaust, 1988. Lockett was added to the show in Atlanta.
Ronald Lockett, Holocaust, 1988. Lockett was added to the show in Atlanta.

"Donald Moffett, an artist in the show and a member of Gran Fury, emailed me earlier this week and said, you know, inclusion is messy," Hushka said by phone. "And we've been reminded so strongly that change is hard, and it's disruptive, and you have to think differently about how we perceive our work within the community. One of the most important lessons I've taken is it's not either/or, it's both/and. We have to talk about the way AIDS changed American art as an art historical argument, but we also have the space to talk about what HIV looks like in the community, and all of these intersecting and overlapping forces that continue to fuel this pandemic."

Stebich said, "Ironically the hardest works to borrow for this exhibition were the ones by African American artists, and why is that? Because they are in the galleries of the museums that hold them. You saw the MFA Boston trumpeting the fact that they bought a Frida Kahlo recently. At the new Met Breuer, what painting are they standing in front of to introduce the new space and the new collection? A Kerry James Marshall. There's a larger conversation going on and museums care about how we present ourselves and we care about what we share."

She told the story of trying to track down a Glenn Ligon work. She was shunted from one museum to the next, and then secured the loan of a work for Tacoma only.

The Zuckerman secured its own Ligon loan, from the Bronx Museum, and also added to Art, AIDS, America works by artists Ronald Lockett, Bethany Joy Collins, Marlon Riggs, Willie Cole, Alvin Baltrot, and Whitfield Lovell.

Willie Cole, How Do You Spell America? #2, 1993, another artist added in Atlanta.
Willie Cole, How Do You Spell America? #2, 1993, another artist added in Atlanta. Courtesy of the Bronx Museum

Katz's "only objection" is he wants the conversation to be broader than just Art, AIDS, America, not to "give a pass" to all the museums that never worry about demographics and representation. One of the dilemmas, he said, "is that there hasn't been enough protest."

I reached out to ask Christopher Paul Jordan, a leader of the original protest with Tacoma Action Collective, for his take on how things have developed since the protests. The last days of the exhibition at TAM were discouraging, he said. The museum did not add works to the show in Tacoma, and didn't have the protocols or the relationships in the community to reach out to artists of color. Leah Mann of the mostly white performance group Lelavision agreed. She told me she was scheduled to perform at the closing but, after she saw the protests, gave up her spot to make room for artists of color—then found herself also having to invite them and arrange for their entry herself.

"It wasn't through the front door—it was a side door," Mann told me.

Stebich at TAM said she didn't know of the problems and instead "was really proud of how quickly we responded."

Again, the larger structural problems persist unless challenged. TAM's main upcoming focus will be to build yet another new wing for yet another white collector, full of mostly glass art made by white artists.

I'm looking forward to seeing what happens when Art, AIDS, America hits the Bronx. If I were the Bronx Museum, I'd ask Kia Labeija if she'd be willing to lend Your White Walls Can Kiss My Black Ass, with its overtones of being sick and tired, and the beautiful, tenacious counterpoint piece, Eleven, for the entrance to the exhibition.