This is Kia and Mommy, by Kia La Beija, one of the four Black artists in the exhibition Art AIDS America at Tacoma Art Museum.
This is Kia and Mommy, by Kia La Beija, one of the four Black artists in the exhibition Art AIDS America at Tacoma Art Museum. Courtesy of the artist

First, the facts. This is from the Centers for Disease Control.

Blacks/African Americans continue to experience the most severe burden of HIV, compared with other races and ethnicities.

Blacks represent approximately 12% of the U.S. population, but accounted for an estimated 44% of new HIV infections in 2010. They also accounted for 41% of people living with HIV infection in 2011.

Since the epidemic began, an estimated 270,726 blacks with AIDS have died, including an estimated 6,540 in 2012.

Yesterday, during Third Thursday Art Walk at Tacoma Art Museum, artists and activists staged a die-in protest over the lack of Black artists in the exhibition Art AIDS America. They displayed posters and stickers with the words "Stop erasing black people," according to a press release from the museum, and the event followed the publication, on Post Defiance blog, of an interview conducted by Tacoma artists and activists Christopher Paul Jordan and Charhys Bailey with Rock Hushka, the co-curator of the powerful show.

The show was powerful to Jordan and Bailey for different reasons than the museum intended.

They found its lack of Black artists deeply disturbing.

There are four Black artists out of 107 total artists in the show. Yet according to the Centers for Disease Control, of the more than 600,000 people who have died after AIDS diagnoses in the United States, more than 270,000 were Black. The most recent numbers show that the Black community is disproportionately affected by HIV, accounting for an estimated 44 percent of new HIV infections while only making up 12 percent of the US population.

So when Jordan and Bailey looked at the work on the walls, they saw the erasure of the racial group that has been hit the hardest by AIDS and HIV.

Here is Jordan, interviewing Hushka.

CJ: I need to explain that for me, as a Black male walking through Art AIDS America at the opening, I was anticipating a show that was deeply representative of Black people. I went with a friend. We were so excited to see what work was in the space basically because demographically HIV is us, and we expected to see a lot of work relevant to our experiences.

I was disturbed however when I walked in to an utterly white space. I felt like I was back in the 80s and my life didn’t matter.

RH: Yes I totally get it, kind of. I’m interested in how this is historicizing for you. It tells us one of two things. One, that the practice that Jonathan and I are trying to get people to think about is so embedded that we’re right, that the change in American art-making is so profound, that we both can’t ignore it.

Wait so I’m not saying that I felt like I was in the 80s based on the style of the art. I’m saying I felt like I was in the 80s based on the fact that there was no concern in the space of the show for my life as a Black person or the life of my people who are dying. Meanwhile the show was being referred to as “historic” and a “messy masterpiece” and all the white people at the reception are having a great time.

[short pause]

Well ultimately Jonathan and my intention is that this show is paving the way to make more conversations possible.

Ok I’m concerned though that this show is 30 years behind. You’re saying as far as exploring the story of the prevalence of HIV in Black America…

You have to wait for the next one.

…Ok so based on your understanding of HIV, who does this impact? Who is affected by this disease?

Artists in the canon. That would be my answer.

I'm going to ask Jordan, Bailey, Hushka, and East Coast-based co-curator Jonathan Katz whether they want to add more reflections to the discussion.

But there are things to say right now as well.

First of all, the phrase "messy masterpiece" was in the headline attached to my glowing review of the exhibition. I don't write the headlines, and I would not choose to use "masterpiece," but it is undeniable that I called the exhibition "an epic and a national treasure."

It is also undeniable that I did not mention the fact that HIV/AIDS has hugely disproportionately hurt the Black community, and yet that there are only four Black artists in the exhibition.

I regret that. I regret not pointing out the insight, asking why and how it happened, and considering the challenges faced by artists and activists and curators and institutions when it comes to representation, especially here, where an exhibition that attempted to represent one underrepresented group of human beings ended up underrepresenting another group of human beings. How could this have gone differently along the way? To learn a little more about the nuances of the Jordan/Bailey/Hushka conversation, I really suggest reading the whole thing.

I will revisit these questions, and the question of what happens next, in another piece of writing.

Tacoma Art Museum put out a press release this afternoon about the protest. Here's an excerpt (TAM director Stephanie Stebich is speaking in the quotes):

“We are encouraged by the action this group has taken. They felt comfortable and safe in coming here to express their opinions and thoughts. We respect their protest. TAM’s Board President Steve Harlow and I have accepted their thoughtful invitation to meet and listen to their ideas on how TAM can be more diverse and inclusive. We look forward to having that conversation soon. I have also invited them to conduct another peaceful protest at the museum to highlight their concerns.”

The concerns of the group are important and valid. The statistics they quoted from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention regarding the numbers of African Americans affected by HIV describe the overwhelming impact in Black communities. Tacoma Action Collective’s protest brings focus to the undeniable urgency of addressing HIV/AIDS among the Black population in the United States. TAM supports action and other organizations that are working to address this crisis. As curator Rock Hushka told Christopher Jordan and Charhys Bailey during their conversation, he and others at TAM welcome opportunities to continue this discussion and facilitate the group’s expression in the broader conversation about HIV/AIDS.

More to come. Meanwhile, here is an important recent op-ed from the New York Times about the role of mass incarceration in the disproportionate rate of HIV infections in the Black community.