Last Thursdays die-in protest against the lack of Black artists in the exhibition Art AIDS America at Tacoma Art Museum.
Last Thursday's die-in protest against the lack of Black artists in the exhibition Art AIDS America at Tacoma Art Museum. Photo by Saiyare Refaei

Last Friday, I wrote about a developing protest over how few Black artists are included in the groundbreaking exhibition Art AIDS America at Tacoma Art Museum—given that "Blacks/African Americans continue to experience the most severe burden of HIV, compared with other races and ethnicities," the Centers for Disease Control reports.

It's worth repeating the CDC's full data on this point: "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." (The total number of AIDS deaths in the United States is more than 600,000.)

Over the weekend, the conversation bloomed and spread.

Two of the four Black artists included in the exhibition—Kia Labeija and Kalup Linzy—issued statements on Facebook about their experiences with Art AIDS America. So did behind-the-scenes exhibition consultant Kenyon Farrow, an AIDS activist recruited to be on an organizing team for the show.

Monday morning I had the chance to talk by phone with Tacoma artist Christopher Paul Jordan, who with Charhys Bailey last week conducted a thoroughgoing interview with TAM curator Rock Hushka about the show's paucity of Black artists—4 out of 107—despite its claim to "explore the whole spectrum of artistic responses to AIDS."

The protests could become a national movement as the exhibition travels. You can find out more by following the hashtags #DieInAtTAM and #StopErasingBlackPeople, adopted by protesters, who have three demands: "more Black staff at all levels of leadership within Tacoma Art Museum," "staff/board retraining in Undoing Institutional Racism (UIR) at all levels of leadership among Art Museum personnel," and "that the artist Roster for Art AIDS America be changed to include greater representation of Black Artists before the show tours nationally in 2016." (Art AIDS America, co-curated by Hushka and Jonathan Katz and organized by TAM in partnership with the Bronx Museum of the Arts, is headed to the Bronx; to the Zuckerman Museum of Art in Kennesaw, Georgia; and to an as-yet-undisclosed location in Chicago.)

This is a poster that Tacoma artist Christopher Paul Jordan made. Its an adaptation, applied to Art AIDS America at TAM, of Andre Carillhos devastating 2014 cartoon depicting the way American and European media respond to outbreaks of ebola in Africa.
This is a poster that Tacoma artist Christopher Paul Jordan made. It's an adaptation, applied to Art AIDS America at TAM, of Andre Carillho's devastating 2014 cartoon depicting the way American and European media respond to outbreaks of ebola in Africa. Courtesy of Christopher Paul Jordan

Kia Labeija, who was born positive, tells her story on Facebook, of feeling hopeful at the chance to participate in Art AIDS America and at the exhibition's potential for changing the way people see HIV and AIDS.

She became deeply disappointed.

In 2014, I received an email from Hushka about the possibility of showing in an exhibition, there were many frequent emails and then a phone call. That phone call entailed a promise to be featured in the show, an outstanding fee for the commission of a new work, and a contract delivered in the next few days. My young artist heart melted, having felt 'seen' and feeling honored to represent faces that are always left out of the AIDS Epidemic narrative - womyn, womyn of color, and children born positive. I was elated, dreaming of all the ways in which this show would help renegotiate the way people understand what HIV looks like. ...

I finally received notice that Rock would be coming to NY for a studio visit. I felt re-affirmed, however the commissioned work I never created, due to a lack of communication. So '24' was chosen to be shown. Rock came to my house, and sought out the series. I felt incredibly disconnected speaking with him, as I do most times I speak with 'Art Scholars', curators that don't particularly engage in art making practices, or privileged white men in business suits. He told my father before leaving that he he would 'make me a star'. My thoughts were that I wished not to be a star, but a super nova, who could fill up a space that felt so inclusive to white, cisgender, gay men. ...

I am honored to show work on a platform as big as this, but at what extent made my work the ONLY piece to represent one of the largest groups of people being infected with the virus? How much longer will we be erased from history? Why do we always have to 'Wait for the next one'. I am in full support of all Art AIDS America Protests! I will be doing an artist talk at the Zuckerman Museum of Art for the next leg of the tour on March 8th. Please come join me... They wanna see a show, let's give it to them.

Read Labeija's full post here.

This is Kia Labeija. Mourning Sickness, 2014.
This is Kia Labeija. Mourning Sickness, 2014. Courtesy of the artist

Kalup Linzy, the other participating artist to comment on FB this weekend, wrote this response:

I met with Rock Hushka in Crown Heights for a long lunch a few years back. We discussed the idea and a potentially new commissioned work, which didn't pan out. I never conceptualized a new piece. He seemed to be into Lollypop the most. I also don't live with HIV/AIDS in my body, so I fall into the category of moving through life with it being around me. My work uses a lot of humor and I don't make work directly about AIDS, but I contribute to fundraising and I have written scripts about wrapping it up. In college, I wrote a paper on Rotimi Fani-Kayode, who died from complications of AIDS in 1989. Not sure if he has come up in the discussion or not. I'm also not sure if I mentioned him to Rock Hushka or not. I also wasn't aware of what other artists he was talking to

I asked Linzy and fellow artist Sur Rodney (Sur), who'd commented on Linzy's post, if they'd be willing to comment on the show's representation of Black artists now that Linzy does know the artist list. I will report more if I hear back.

Activist Farrow, the consultant to the exhibition, wrote that he felt ignored by the art curators.

I was a part of a consultation Tacoma Art Museum hosted in 2011 when it was in the process of curating "AIDS, Art, and America"—I was directly recruited by Rock Hushka and if I'm not mistaken, I may have been the only Black person in the group. I'm not an art historian nor a visual artist, but am a former professional actor, and AIDS activist and am familiar with cultural production and art on HIV, and have delivered talks on the 1980s and Black cultural production's response to HIV through shifting discourses and presentations of gender. After being shown the works that were under consideration, I and a few other attendees remarked on how white and male the planned exhibit was, and I personally got into a heated argument with Jonathan Katz (co-curator) about a particular Basquiat piece they were going to scrap because Katz didn't think it was really about HIV—which I and others pointed to several pieces that were clearly by and about white gay men that didn't directly address HIV, but were included. A few of us pointed out focusing on "canonical" works would obviously limit the voices to mostly white men, and suggested they lean against that direction. I also gave a list of names of contemporary Black artists who should be considered, along with their websites and contact info—they may have work or knew of work out there that didn't necessarily circulate in mainstream art venues, but was no less important. I also suggested they include video and audio installations that would expand what was considered "art" and would then include Marlon Riggs, house music, hip-hop and ballroom culture that was definitely cultural production addressing the epidemic of the period. Obviously none of that was taken seriously.

I recommend checking out an interesting conversation thread on Farrow's post, which includes links to the artists he recommended TAM consider, and a discussion of how art works are considered to pertain to a theme, or fit into a canon. Some of those artists include Rashaad Newsome, Noelle Lorraine Williams, Tiona McClodden, Brandon Coley Cox, and Duron Jackson.

As for Jordan, the Tacoma artist, this all began when he asked a question about why there weren't more Black artists in the exhibition during a panel discussion at the museum. Curator Hushka wasn't present, but the panelists told Jordan he should ask Hushka, and later, Hushka contacted Jordan and asked Jordan to talk. The conversation was even more "callous" and "explicit" than Jordan had expected, he said, which is why he had hesitated to contact Hushka himself, preferring to work with others on organizing the protests.

Individual interactions easily become fodder for witch hunts that distract from addressing systemic racist policies, procedures, and practices. Jordan is part of a much larger collective of protesters addressing the museum as a whole—and the exhibition as it goes on its national tour—to demand formal change.

"We don't want it to become a conversation about individual racists," said Jordan, pointing out that Hushka has nominated him for an award in the past—it's not personal. "We just want to talk about the systemic issues."

After the protests, the museum "sent us an email... inviting us to do more die-ins at the museum," Jordan explained. "It was almost as if they were trying to fold it into their brand as performance art or something. They said that they are excited that we made the comments that we made and that they want to talk with us but they’ve made no actual statements about commitment or with regard to the demands we’ve put out."

Over the weekend Jordan attended a meeting of the longtime Tacoma group the Black Collective, and TAM representatives spoke, he said, about building a pipeline for a more diverse staff through their after-school education programs.

"I don't think they're really aware yet of how important, or how urgent, this is," said Jordan.

More to come.