Bearing witness: 30 years of AIDS

Bearing witness: 30 years of AIDS

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The three decades of the HIV/AIDS epidemic will be explored through art in a new exhibit that highlights the longevity of the disease and diversity of those impacted by it.

An opening reception will be held for “Witness” from 5:30-8 p.m. Dec. 2, and the show will run through Jan. 27 at Asian Arts Initiative, 1219 Vine St.

About two-dozen artists will be featured in the show, which will include everything from paintings to sculptures to video installations.

Curator David Acosta said the exhibit is meant to mark the anniversary of the disease by looking back at its inception as well as acknowledging its presence in modern society.

“Art was really critical, especially initially, to addressing the HIV epidemic because there were so many artists who were being impacted,” Acosta said. “And we wanted this to also serve as an educational exhibition to point out that the epidemic is certainly not over and is still impacting many communities in the United States and throughout the world.”

Acosta previously served on the board of the Asian Arts Initiative and said the agency’s interim director of operations, Thora Jacobson, and executive director Gayle Isa were enthusiastic about the concept when he presented it. The women were integral in bringing the show to fruition.

While organizers were eager to feature a diverse cross-section of media, Acosta said the diversity of the artists themselves was also crucial.

“That was a very important element of the show,” Acosta said. “It was a challenge to try to gather as diverse a group of artistic voices as possible, but we felt it was very important. We wanted to have a group that reflected a wide range of ages, races, genders, sexual orientations and ethnicities, so that it’s truly reflective of the very broad swath of communities the epidemic has manifested itself in over the last 30 years.”

Out artist Ed Hall will exhibit his painting, “Love Lost.”

“It’s a reflection of how many people are dying and how this loved one is left behind and the loss and longing this person is feeling,” Hall said.

The artist, 30, said the work was inspired by the toll the epidemic had on his own life.

“I have a few close friends who have it and it’s a challenge to see them having to deal with this,” Hall said. “But the reality is that one day I may not be able to see them and spend time with them, and even though that’s true of all people, it’s even more heartbreaking because of what they have to go through as they struggle with this disease.”

That journey is also addressed in George Apotsos’ “Faces Unseen.”

The painting by the 50-year-old openly gay artist features a series of nameless, faceless men, depicted from behind, as each faces a seemingly spiritual light.

“The work itself originates from my trying to imagine what it’s like to be in the presence of God,” Apotsos said. “And then I wanted to bring in the subjects of abandonment and rejection. I thought back to how many friends I had who felt like no one was paying attention to them — the president at the time didn’t even say the word AIDS — so that brought up all the feelings I had in the early days and the loss I later experienced of not having those friends anymore.”

The way in which the men are depicted, however, leaves the question of spirituality in the hands of the observer.

“In the end, it’s up to the viewer to figure out what the subjects are looking at, so they can finish the painting according to their own beliefs,” Apotsos said.

Tay Cha, a 26-year-old transgender man, will be showing three drawings, all of which depict a pain that can be widely relatable to those diagnosed with HIV/AIDS.

Cha said his work is largely inspired by Keith Haring, who died in 1990 from complications of AIDS and whose affinity for cartoon-like imagery Cha shares.

“The characters in my drawings are in a lot of physical pain but they have the power to heal through love and compassion,” he said. “I try to remind myself in my works of the larger issues in the world like the AIDS epidemic, which took the life of this artist and so many others.”

“Witness,” Cha said, can be a learning experience about the all-encompassing influence the epidemic has had and continues to have on those afflicted and affected by it.

“I hope that the work in the show, including my own, helps to remind people and raise awareness of the devastating effect [HIV/AIDS] has not only on those living with it or those who are at risk, but also of all of their loved ones all over the world,” he said.

Education will also be a goal of “Shout,” a writing workshop offered through “Witness.”

The four-part series, organized by Philadelphia FIGHT, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Connect2Protect and Duende Presents, will encourage individuals to write, perform and share their stories of the epidemic as a means of personal healing and public awareness.

Twelve people have so far signed up to participate in the program, and spots are still available. The workshops are open to the public, and no prior writing experience is required.

Writing instructor Susan DiPronio, who will lead “Shout” and whose artwork will also be exhibited at “Witness,” has organized numerous workshops in the past several years to serve as an outlet for those whose stories often go untold.

“For me, writing has really saved my life; if I didn’t get the chance to write every day, I think my head would explode. And I’ve noticed this to be true with a lot of people, whether it’s children who are HIV-positive, those who are victims of violence or the homeless that we’ve worked with, and I think it’s going to be the same thing with ‘Shout,’” she said.

DiPronio said that when the workshop participants begin putting their thoughts to paper, the stories often flow freely and the process serves as a healing mechanism.

“Once people start writing, especially those who think they can’t write, it’s very therapeutic and often permeates and continues throughout their lives,” DiPronio said. “Especially for someone who’s had something traumatic in their lives, writing can be very important and very cleansing.”

“Shout” participants will host a public group performance at Asian Arts Initiative Jan. 25 to close the exhibit, although participation in the performance segment is voluntary.

“Shout” will mirror the diversity featured in “Witness,” and Acosta said he expects exhibit visitors to also represent the various communities the epidemic has hit.

“I think we’ll see audiences as broad as the artists,” he said. “Artists don’t work in isolation: They all come from communities, in plural, so I think people from all of these communities are going to be interested in seeing how the artists have either addressed the epidemic over the past 30 years or how they’re responding to the current state of the epidemic.”

That current state, Hall said, is something to which guests should pay special attention.

Hall suggested younger generations, who did not experience the epidemic’s scourge of the 1980s and ’90s, are not mindful enough of the ongoing and ubiquitous presence of the disease — something “Witness” can present.

“I think people can realize from this that this is not something to be taken lightly. Over the past few years, I think attention has been lessening and people aren’t taking it as seriously as they used to,” he said. “We’re hearing about so many people who are having unprotected sex and just not really thinking about the repercussions that can come from that. So hopefully this can bring some light to the fact that this is still a very active disease and is still affecting a lot of people, especially here in Philadelphia. We want to bring awareness to people and show them that there is so much more to be done.”

For more information, visit

To participate in “Shout,” contact DiPronio at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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