Art AIDS (Not All) America: The Developing Protest On Lack of Black Representation in ‘Groundbreaking’ Exhibition

Kia Labeija, Kia and Mommy (Courtesy of the artist)

Kia Labeija, Kia and Mommy (Courtesy of the artist)

Billing itself as “groundbreaking” and “the first comprehensive overview and reconsideration of 30 years of art made in response to the AIDS epidemic in the United States,” Art AIDS America, curated by Jonathan David Katz and Tacoma Museum of Art’s Rock Hushka, has in the past few days come under heavy criticism for its lack of representation of Black artists.

Looking at statistics from the Center for Disease Control, African Americans are predominantly affected by HIV/AIDS making up almost half of the AIDS-related deaths in the United States since the 1980s. Black Americans also were 41% of people living with HIV in 2011 and and an estimated 44% of new HIV infections in 2010.

Despite these numbers, Art AIDS America only features 5 Black artists–Kia Labeija, Kalup Linzy, Derek Jackson, Nayland Blake and Glenn Ligon–of their 107 artists in the show. Currently on view at the Tacoma Museum of Art and traveling to the Zuckerman Museum of Art in February and the Bronx Museum in June (The Bronx continues to be one of the hardest hit areas for HIV/AIDS,), the exhibition description claims to explore “the whole spectrum of artistic responses to AIDS.”

Last week, Post Defiance, a Tacoma-based website, posted an interview with Art AIDS America co-curator and Tacoma Museum of Art chief curator Rock Hushka, conducted by artist and activist Christopher Jordan and Charhys Bailey. According to Jordan’s disclaimer he posted to his personal Facebook page, he was offered the interview by the museum and panelists after publicly raising the issue. As he writes, “Curators/Panelists at TAM insisted that this interview take place because they believed that if Rock Hushka explained his intentions for why only 5 of the 107 artists were Black that I would understand. Rock reached out to me over email requesting that we meet in person after I raised the question of Black representation to one of his panels.”

While I rarely post on other writer’s interviews or articles on Filthy Dreams, I believe that Jordan and Bailey’s interview is, from their end, masterful while revealing the insidiousness of institutional racism in museums and other art institutions. I also believe that curators and museum administrators need to be taken to task for their exhibitions, particularly shows that perpetuate the already frequent silences around the ongoing HIV/AIDS epidemic. I hope by posting it on Filthy Dreams I can get more readers to look at the interview, which opens an essential discussion about race, representation, art and activism.

Approaching Hushka with their personal reactions to the–all but–erasure of Black artists contributions to the intersection of AIDS and American art, Jordan and Bailey raise significant issues from the exclusion of Black artists in the exhibition itself to the lack of Black staff at the museum.

As someone who has worked in museums within even the last several months, I have to say I found the interview shocking but not surprising. I was shocked that Hushka actually verbalized views that I believed were held by museum curators, as well as the general laziness of the curatorial vision in only showing “established” and “museum-ready” artists.

Just for a few highlights from the interview, Hushka asserts that Jordan will “have to wait for the next one” for Black representation:

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.

So when it comes to,  for example, the fact that Black Americans share nearly half of the death toll of AIDS related deaths in the US, you didn’t consider it a priority to center on Black voices?

[Hushka pause]

“Well, where did you get those statistics?”

And then this:

CJ: Could you discuss your strategies in your own words in terms of the ways or types of work that you’ve curated in the show that maybe helped counter the lack of representation of Black artists in this project?

RH: Yes, for example in appropriation.

Please explain that further. I think I’m barely grasping what you mean.  

All of these artists took whatever tools were around them and they appropriated, which is a fancy word for stole, techniques from Feminist artists, Chicano artists, and African American artists for their work.

So are you suggesting that Black and Chicano art history is being represented here by proxy through white artists?

It’s the idea of inherent racism, of taking an art practice developed by the Latino community or the African American community, and then using it for their own devices. Is it racist or when is it acceptable?

So what exactly is important about this?

Because they [white male artists in the show] stole this, all of those things are being transmitted to the next generation.

Ok so going back to the question of what types of artists’ work were included in the show…

We were looking for artists who’ve had a pretty robust museum exposure, versus looking for artists that… [trails off] We wanted more of the artists who were already known

And maybe my personal favorite:

CB: So backing away from this specific show and more general questions about Tacoma Art Museum, who would you say TAM sees as its community?

RH: Our community is mainly visitors to the museum.

CB: Are there any African American people on staff at TAM?


CB: Who are those people?

Bob. [Name changed]

CB: Do you know Bob’s last name?

I don’t know Bob’s last name.

CB: What does Bob do?

He is on security. There is also an intern, Nancy [name changed], a UWT student who will begin after January 1st.

CB: Ok so when I asked about Black staff in the art museum I’m interested particularly in people who have an influence on the art…

There hasn’t been one to my knowledge in the history of the museum, or since I’ve been with the museum.


I highly suggest that all reader’s click here and read the entire interview.

In his disclaimer, Jordan explains insightfully, “It doesn’t matter what Rock thinks and believes as an individual. The real issue is the culture of white silence and disinterest in Black humanity that permeates TAM as well as the silence permeating our entire city in not challenging this. Another TAM curator told me that they knew the representations may be an issue but figured that Rock had his own rationale and they wanted to stay out of it. These are the behaviors which allow for a project like Art AIDS America to develop over the course of 10 years, to be sponsored, supported celebrated and not once consider that Black voices might need to be emphasized.”

In response to the Post Defiance interview, more artists and activists have come forward in both protest and with statements on their experience with the curation of the exhibition.

(Via Tacoma Action Collective's Facebook page)

(Via Tacoma Action Collective’s Facebook page)

Last Thursday, the Tacoma Action Collective staged a die-in at the Tacoma Museum in response to the interview displaying posters stating “Stop erasing black people.”

Another artist and activist Kenyon Farrow posted on Facebook about his experiences meeting with the curators during their years long research for the exhibition:

“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.”

And Kia Labeija, notably the only Black woman artist in the exhibition (who was also in Party Out Of Bounds), came out in support of the protests, detailing her long arduous process with the curators and stating:

“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.”

Stay tuned for more updates on Art AIDS America since hopefully the discussion has just started.

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