Rock Hushka came of age as an artist under the shadow of AIDS.
He was a high school student in North Dakota in 1983 when he first read in Time or Newsweek about what was then called the gay plague. It was barely two years after the first cases had been reported, when the number of known infections stood at a few thousand. Even with no idea how bad things would get, Hushka remembers thinking, “This is not OK.”
In the increasingly not-OK decade that followed, Hushka studied art at the University of Washington and the University of Wisconsin and was riveted by the “passionate and focused” response of artists to the crisis. Directly addressing the stigma surrounding AIDS, they demanded that attention be paid. “They showed that art can be an agent of change,” he said.
Today the Tacoma Art Museum’s chief curator, Hushka has brought together an exhibition that both examines and continues that tradition. The 127 works in Art AIDS America walk a younger generation through the 34-year history of HIV/AIDS as depicted by photographers Robert Mapplethorpe and Annie Leibovitz, graffiti-inspired artist Keith Haring, painter Jasper Johns, conceptual artist Barbara Kruger, performance artist Karen Finley and a host of equally powerful but less familiar names. At the same time, the exhibit reminds an AIDS-fatigued nation that, with 1.2 million Americans living with HIV and 50,000 new infections a year in the U.S., the battle isn’t over.
HIV researchers and activists say that the show, which opened last weekend and will run through Jan. 10, is exactly the medicine that’s needed for the global pandemic’s forgotten home front.
“HIV/AIDS is still a major health issue even if it’s not on the front pages of the newspapers every day,” said Dr. Jeffrey Schouten, director of the Office of HIV/AIDS Network Coordination, or HANC, which is based at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and works with prevention and treatment networks across the nation. “Art plays a unique role in highlighting some of the social issues below the radar screen of people who think AIDS is over.”
In the decade after Hushka read that magazine story, AIDS became a global scourge, infecting more than half a million people in the United States alone and killing more than 300,000 of them. Caused by HIV, a retrovirus that attacks the immune system, it was effectively a death sentence. Then in 1996, a combination of antiretroviral drugs, now taken as a single once-a-day pill, began to yank lives back from the brink.
Antiretroviral therapy was as close to a miracle drug as the world had seen, and the credit for speeding its development is shared by scientists and the activists – and artists – who demanded political action and funding.
But AIDS hasn’t gone away, even if the headlines have.
Scientists now know that even for those on the lifesaving treatment, HIV infection can cause underlying damage to the immune system and chronic inflammation, which can lead to increased risk for cancer, heart disease and other ailments.
Worse, even in the United States, only about 30 percent of people living with HIV are on antiretroviral medication at all or regularly enough to have the virus under control, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Besides facing drastically shortened lives, the untreated are also more likely to infect others, as treatment keeps the virus at such low or undetectable levels that it is harder to transmit.
Explanations for the lack of treatment include disparities in access to and use of health care, which are largely driven by underlying social conditions such as poverty and persistent HIV stigma.
“We have this misconception that HIV is a chronically manageable disease, a term I don’t like to use,” said Schouten. “One pill a day doesn’t take away the problems of people with HIV.”
The early epicenter of the U.S. AIDS epidemic was white and gay neighborhoods in San Francisco and New York. Today those hardest his are largely black, Latino, poor, often living in rural areas and in the South. If many Americans are lulled into thinking HIV/AIDS has gone away, it’s because the people most affected are largely invisible to them – just like members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community had been at the pandemic’s beginning.
“As HIV becomes more of a disease that affects people of color and people in poverty, even people in the LGBT community have lost focus on HIV as a social justice problem,” said Bertram Johnson, a HANC engagement officer. “[The exhibition] raises awareness of the continued need for research – for an HIV vaccine, for more accessible prevention and treatment, for a cure.”
Johnson works for The Legacy Project, a HANC program that bridges gaps between researchers and those affected by HIV, especially African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans. A theater actor, dancer, and singer, he has long been interested in using the arts as a way to build trust with communities disproportionately affected by HIV/AIDS but not well represented in research clinical trials.
In 2012, he invited Hushka – who has been working on Art AIDS America for the last 10 years – to a meeting of artists, scientists, and activists. Leading up to the exhibit opening, Johnson made presentations to museum staff about ongoing HIV research. HANC Director Schouten helped recruit scientists at the National Institutes of Health to write an introductory essay for the exhibit’s 300-page catalog.
In addition to HANC, Fred Hutch also is home to the federally funded HIV Vaccine Trials Network, which oversees clinical trials in the U.S. and globally, and defeatHIV, one of three federally funded research groups working to develop a cure for HIV. Staff at all three praised the exhibit as a powerful reminder of why their work matters.
“You would have to physically go to Tacoma Art Museum and walk among the 127 pieces of art to understand when I tell you that Art AIDS America is a subtle emotional rollercoaster,” said Michael Louella, who coordinates defeatHIV’s community advisory board. “You will swear you are in a museum one minute, and then the very next you will find yourself transfixed by a moment of shared history.”
Co-curated with Dr. Jonathan David Katz, director of the Visual Studies Doctoral Program at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York, the exhibition covers a period from 1981 – the year reports emerged of a small group of gay men dying of a mysterious illness – to the present.
Some works are overtly agitprop, like the re-creation of “Let the Record Show…” Created by Gran Fury, an artists’ collective made up of members of the activist group ACT UP, the installation first constructed in New York City in 1987 includes a neon pink triangle – the visual badge ordered for gay men by the Nazis – and the slogan SILENCE=DEATH. It was both a protest against politicians’ early silence about AIDS and a call to people with HIV to speak out.
Others are straightforward depictions of AIDS’ ravages, forcing the viewer to look at faces marked by the lesions of Kaposi sarcoma as in Alon Reininger’s huge print, “Ken Meeks, PWA,” or the sheer scale of the epidemic, as in Nan Goldin’s giant photo grid of 16 faces, all friends who had died of AIDS. (Many of the artists in the exhibit, among them Mapplethorpe and Haring, also died of AIDS.)
Still other works are more subtle, like Robert Sherer’s “Sweet Williams,” which looks like an old-fashioned painting of flowers being clipped for a bouquet – but is painted in HIV-negative and HIV-positive blood and represents beautiful lives being chopped down. Like HIV itself – invisible in the body, until it isn’t – artists found ways to slip work into museums and galleries that were reluctant to show art about gay sex, much less about disease and death.
Even today, “It’s very unusual that a museum will host an exhibit about death, disease, gay identity, sexuality – much less all at the same time,” Hushka said. Both he and museum executive director Stephanie Stebich praised the Tacoma Art Museum board and the Tacoma community for their support of such a groundbreaking exhibit. Many museums that Hushka and Katz approached for a national tour praised their work but called the topic “a downer.” (The show will travel to the Bernard A. Zuckerman Museum of Art in Kennesaw, Georgia and the Bronx Museum of the Arts in New York, and early buzz is leading to interest from others.)
“I get that people are tired. I get that it’s a hard topic to think about,” Hushka said. “But the present has to be acknowledged, and the history. If you don’t remember this activist and painful history, then you can’t really understand why the art looks the way it does.”
Like feminist art before it, the art of the AIDS era was as personal as it was political. Hushka came of age as a gay man as well as an artist during this period, awash with news of people like him dying. After returning to Seattle from graduate school, he volunteered with the Shanti Project, a group that provided practical and emotional support for people with AIDS. As good as the Shanti training was, nothing prepared him for the jarring intensity of helping others in their 20s face death.
“I was very fortunate that I was not at the epicenter, or I don’t know what would have happened,” he said. “My entire consciousness comes from being aware of this disease and how it’s impacted people.”
Yet it was on a 2005 trip to New York City – which was one of the U.S. epicenters of the epidemic – that he came to realize how much this pivotal event had disappeared from the national consciousness. He was in a bookstore looking for new work on HIV/AIDS and found the section relegated to a bottom shelf in the back corner of the basement. Even there, most of the books emphasized the pandemic’s global toll in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere, a vital part of the story but one that furthered the impression that HIV/AIDS was no longer a U.S. problem.
In that bookstore basement, the idea for the exhibition took shape.
“We want people to reflect, to ask what happens when artists start to die in the thousands?” said Hushka. “What happens is that artists tell the stories, make sure people aren’t forgotten, that lessons are learned.”
Among the lessons Hushka learned is one very personal one.
“As a gay man,” he said, “I’m alive today because of the work that they did.”
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Mary Engel is a former staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. Previously, she covered medicine and health policy for the Los Angeles Times, where she was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. She was also a fellow at the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT. Follow her on Twitter @Engel140.