Many of the best-known cultural milestones about the AIDS epidemic in the United States—for example, the play “Angels in America” or the movie “Philadelphia”—focused on the urgent protest movement of the 1980s and 1990s and the experience of (often white ) gay men. They are heartbreaking stories of love and unfathomable loss. Yet the impact of the crisis on women, families and children living with HIV and AIDS, especially among people of color, is becoming less apparent.
Born HIV positive in 1990, photographer and performer Kia LaBeija experienced the crisis as a child living with her mother, Kwan Bennett, an AIDS activist. (Bennett died of complications from the disease in 2004.) For LaBeija, the stigma of HIV was a part of her childhood: skipping high school because of the side effects of her medications, worrying about how she was holding up her status in her life. first romantic relationships.
At Fotografiska New York, the artist, born Kia Michelle Benbow, is currently presenting her first solo museum show, featuring intimate, glamorous self-portraits, documentary shots from her time in New York’s ballroom scene, and personal ephemera from a childhood spent in the height of the AIDS epidemic in New York. These are edited excerpts from a recent interview.
You’ve titled your show “Prepare My Heart.” What does that sentence mean to you?
The title came from the idea that my mother was preparing me for her death. She wrote me all those notebooks of things she wanted me to know in case something happened to her. After finding out she was living with HIV, the notebooks got a little more intentional. The story I wanted to tell is about surviving, being able to live to the age I am now. It’s about how we prepare. I learned that my response was to document and archive a history that needs to be told. How do you prepare for and deal with grief, and yet find happiness and love through it all?
The works on display are closely related to your life story, living with HIV and your mother’s activism. Why did you want to portray this autobiographical element in your work?
There is something in me that wanted to tell my story, even when I was very young. I think not seeing any kind of representation of myself was really the reason. Historically, when we talk about the AIDS epidemic, we talk a lot about the gay, white, male experience. Those are, of course, stories that need to be voiced. But I think in great stories there are always people who are left out. My mother, after her diagnosis, decided that she wanted to be part of that community. She found Apicha, the coalition of Asian and Pacific Islanders against HIV/AIDS. She wanted to find other people who looked like her – she was a heterosexual, mixed race Asian woman. Especially in Asian communities it was like, “Asians don’t get AIDS.” I want to talk about women, children and families in this larger story of the AIDS epidemic.
In your self-portrait series ’24’ you use a glossy aesthetic to capture the everyday challenges of living with HIV. For example, in ‘Mourning Sickness’ you are lying on the floor of your kid’s bathroom, but the picture is rather beautiful. Why did you make that choice?
That’s a very important photo to me. Taking medicine from when I was very young was very difficult, and in the morning I got sick in that bathroom and then went to high school. Then, after my mother died, I locked myself in there, crying and whimpering. I remember one time my father had to ask someone to come to the house to help me get out. And that’s where the grieving part comes from.
I wanted to do it a little differently, because the images about AIDS that I grew up with are very important, but they are difficult. If people only see those photos, that’s the only context they have. I wanted people to interact with each other in a different way. I wanted to be beautiful. What would this experience be like if it were like the fantasy version? There is beauty in these stories.
The show also features photos from your time performing in the New York ballroom scene, where you eventually became the general mom of LaBeija’s house. You were also a principal dancer on the TV show “Pose.” What have your fashion and ballroom experiences brought to your photography?
When I came to the ballroom, especially to LaBeija’s house, I had this character that I could play – it’s an ode to this character that exists in those pictures. I don’t use a camera remote, just a self timer, because I really enjoy those 10 seconds to get into a pose. “Beep… beep… beep. …” It’s like a dance, like fashion.
Your self-portraits are often in real locations from your daily life. How do you go about setting up these shots?
Usually I’m in the middle of something, and then I think, “I want to capture this moment real quick,” and then I continue what I was doing. For example, “Eleven” is a photo of me in my prom dress in a doctor’s office. I called my doctor and said, “I want to take this picture.” He says, “Just come in for your appointment!” Such as: “Wow, what a beautiful dress. Let’s take your blood now.”
What other photographers have influenced you?
I went to MoMA when I was in college and I saw Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s “Hustlers” series. I looked at those pictures and thought, “Wow, they’re so theatrical.” But these are real people, real lives. I thought, “I want to do something like that.” That’s one of my biggest influences.
Your most recent series explores the challenges of finding love while coping with the stigma of living with HIV, and features phrases like “I risked my life for you” projected onto your skin.
I’m just starting to understand some of the very traumatic things I’ve been through, around age 19 or 20, my first relationship. Those years were very difficult, especially around the idea of disclosure. No one said, “It’s important that before you get into that relationship, you let that person know that this is what I’m dealing with.” I had no one to talk to about it.
“I risked my life for you” – the first time I heard that was from my first relationship. That person was upset because I didn’t want to be in a relationship anymore. That wasn’t the only time I heard those words. I heard them over and over. They cut so deep. I met someone in college and it turned into a very psychological, emotional, sexually abusive situation. Women’s stories aren’t often told, and we’re not talking about the fact that more than half of women living with HIV experience intimate partner violence. But the other part of that story is that I found love. When I met my partner, she said, “When you told me, I loved you even more.” And so I wanted to take a second photo, to honor that trajectory.
There is archival material in the show, including a legal handbook for parents with HIV. Why did you choose to include these ephemeral phenomena from your childhood?
I just wanted to show things that I don’t think people get to see. The ephemera is proof that I was there. There were women, there were children. Many of them were probably dead by now. It is unfair that the lives of those children are almost never discussed or represented. They just disappear – when we think of these kids, we only think of the Ryan White story. When he died in 1990, we never saw him grow up. We only got to experience until he died. I’ve put so many personal things into it because I feel like it’s the only way to reach people. I want to speak for myself so that this history of children doesn’t die with all those babies that died. My story is not everyone’s story. But it is one.