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Reflections on Art, Craft, and the AIDS Crisis

Author: Simon Gennard, Blumhardt/Creative New Zealand Curatorial Intern

When you spend several months researching something, you can find yourself becoming numb towards your object of inquiry. The human cost of something as catastrophic as the HIV/AIDS crisis can get lost among the thrill of tracking down archives, the business of negotiating loans of artworks, and the practicalities of hanging those artworks in a space. The panel discussion Art, Craft, and the AIDS Crisis, held at The Dowse on 26th May, threw the emotional reality of crisis years into sharp focus.

SLEEPING ARRANGEMENTS, INSTALLATION VIEW. PHOTOGRAPHER: JOHN LAKE.

SLEEPING ARRANGEMENTS, INSTALLATION VIEW. PHOTOGRAPHER: JOHN LAKE.

GRANT LINGARD, FLAG. INSTALLATION VIEW. COLLECTION OF THE CHRISTCHURCH ART GALLERY TE PUNA O WAIWHETU. PHOTOGRAPHER: JOHN LAKE.

GRANT LINGARD, FLAG. INSTALLATION VIEW. COLLECTION OF THE CHRISTCHURCH ART GALLERY TE PUNA O WAIWHETU. PHOTOGRAPHER: JOHN LAKE.

SLEEPING ARRANGEMENTS, INSTALLATION VIEW. PHOTOGRAPHER: JOHN LAKE.

SLEEPING ARRANGEMENTS, INSTALLATION VIEW. PHOTOGRAPHER: JOHN LAKE.

The panel included contributions from Kevin Jensen and Richard Benge, two people who were involved in community-led responses to the crisis in Wellington and Nelson in the early 1990s, alongside Julia Craig, who is about to complete her Master of Arts in Art History at the University of Auckland. Craig is writing about HIV/AIDS and its representations, focussing on the aesthetic and political strategies deployed by artists to challenge widespread misconceptions about the virus, insist upon its continuing significance, and question how the story of HIV/AIDS is told. The panel was held in association with the exhibition Sleeping Arrangements. The exhibition features four artists from three generations, each of whom has been affected by the HIV/AIDS crisis in different ways, to varying degrees.

Kevin has been involved with the New Zealand AIDS Memorial Quilt since the early 1990s. During the panel, he spoke of the origins of the Quilt - as both a mourning ritual and a political response to the institutional neglect and hostility faced by those affected by the virus. Kevin has toured around the country with the Quilt, giving presentations to schools and community groups to raise awareness for the project. Richard dedicated his contribution to the friends and lovers he’s lost, and recalled his efforts bringing the Quilt to Wellington in 1993.

Julia’s research includes chapters on Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Lyle Ashton-Harris, Kiki Smit, and Ron Athey. In the panel, she reflected on a trend towards rethinking the legacies of artists and writers working around HIV/AIDS in the 1990s, something writer and curator Ted Kerr has called “AIDS Crisis Revisitation.”

More than anything else, the panel affirmed for me the importance of intergenerational conversation. It was a rare chance to listen to those who helped shape Aotearoa’s queer history, as well as to dwell on art’s capacity to intervene in the world, to bring people together, and to help them heal.

You can listen to the full panel on the PrideNZ website here.

I’m grateful as well to Gertrude Agbozo from the New Zealand AIDS Foundation. Gertrude was invited to the event to highlight the important work the Foundation do, and to remind audience members of the continuing urgency of HIV/AIDS.

Sleeping Arrangements is on display until 19 August 2018.

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