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Kia Labeija Tracks the Influence of HIV/AIDS on Contemporary Art

The artist explains how her self-portraits give voice to those living with HIV/AIDS today.
Aurora Suit / Courtesy of the artist

In 1989, a year before the artist Keith Haring died of AIDS, he painted Silence = Death—a work that depicts a large pink triangle surrounded by figures covering their mouths—as a way to make visible both the generation of gay men who were dying of the disease all around him and the community fighting the virus. The work became the symbol of the LGBT organization AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) and helped bring urgency to the epidemic. Nearly 30 years later like Haring and the generation of LGBT artists before her, artist Kia Labeija, who was born HIV positive, is using her self-portraits to show the reality of living with the disease today.


“I had felt incredibly silenced for many years on my battle, and as I got older that began to manifest in other unhealthy ways,” says Labeija. “I have slowly begun to share these parts of me through my work as an artist. I feel incredibly vulnerable, and sad at times. But this is how I know I'm doing something right. I believe all the great artists are great because they are honest. This is as honest and real as it gets for me.”

Kia and Mommy: 24

Labeija uses self-portraits, like Mourning Sickness (below), to communicate the present-day reality of growing up HIV positive. In the portrait, Labeija lays on her bathroom floor in a bathrobe, staring straight into the camera. “Mourning Sickness addresses the reality of side effects from ART (antiretroviral therapy). Growing up positive, I had to take a strict regimen of medications everyday. Many times these pills made me sick to my stomach, and I spent a great deal of time on my bathroom floor before school,” she says. “When I created this image, it was to break my silence on the suffering I had been enduring for many years.”

In My Room

Having lost her mother to AIDS before becoming an artist, Labeija, who was born Kia Michelle Benhow, sees the portraits as being as much about her lived experience and personal visibility as they are about empowerment. “I shot Mourning Sickness as a play on words and [to represent] my experiences with illness and the loss of my mother to AIDS,” she explains to The Creators Project. “But Mourning Sickness does not always have to be sad, it can be glamorous too,” she adds. “The way I framed the image is as Kia Labeija, not as Kia Michelle Benbow. I was so tired of seeing sad images of wasting bodies. I wanted to show something more beautiful. I want my viewers to see me how I see me. Even in my lowest of lows.”


Mourning Sickness

The works, along with Deborah KassStill Here text painting, and Albert J. Winn’s photograph, Akedah, are on view at the Tacoma Art Museum as part of their ongoing Art AIDS America exhibition. The show uses works by Kass, Labeija, and Winn to create a diverse visual timeline of the way that, since the late 1980s, HIV/AIDS has help shape contemporary art. Works like Mourning Sickness, created nearly three decades after the first reported cases of AIDS, help to construct new narratives that explore how HIV/AIDS affect the identities of those who live with the virus currently. In the portrait Kia and Mommy: 24, also on view, the artist lays on the floor of her bedroom in a red dress and heels. The image shows how artists making work about HIV/AIDS have come to consider intersectionality. “As women, we are silenced. As brown people, we are silenced. As people living with HIV, we are silenced. I live at the intersections of these communities,” says the artist. “My self-portraits will always be representations of that, it cannot be denied nor will it be ignored. As a women of mixed race, the complexities of all those that have lived before me will forever have a voice.”

Grandmother Willow Tree

Beyond portraiture, Labeija, who is a trained dancer, also uses “voguing”—the dance created in New York in the late 1960s as a way for Black and Latino gay men to form community in the face of sexual discrimination—as a point of departure, resulting in performance work that explores what it means to be HIV positive. “The precision and grace of a 'Pop,' 'Dip,' or 'Spin' (the old way), is as rigorous as the adagio's that exist within the technique of classical ballet,” she explains. “When I fell into voguing, it began as community-based work, where I engaged with people whom had stories to tell, whom I call family, who brought me into that world and embraced me, loved me and taught me the elements of 'vogue,' which like all artforms is simply a reflection of life,” explains the artist, also a member of the House of Labeija. “Voguing is my way to use my love for performance to tell my story, the way I see it.”


By combining both portraiture and performance, Labeija fully encapsulates the dynamic nature of those living with HIV/AIDS 30 years after the start of the epidemic. “My story is documented in the work that I produce. My images will always be a conversation with its on lookers,” she says. “This is how you survive.”


Art AIDS America is on view through January 10, 2016 at Tacoma Art Museum. For more information about the exhibition, click here.


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