Currently showing at the Asian Arts Initiative is an exhibition titled Witness: Artists Reflect on 30 Years of the AIDS Pandemic. After visiting the show, I was fortunate to be able to speak with David Acosta, the curator of Witness and a central figure in countless Philadelphia arts organizations and community arts projects. In this, part one of our conversation, Mr. Acosta speaks about his experience curating “Witness”, the purpose of the exhibition, and importance of utilizing art to start conversations about the social and political effects of HIV/AIDS on our communities. Stay tuned for part two of our conversation, in which he offers advice for artists interested in producing their own community arts projects.
“Getting a really broad section of artists across age, race, gender, sexual orientation was a really important consideration [in curating Witness], and the other critical consideration was anchoring the show with some work that had been produced during the most difficult years of the epidemic. A lot of the artists were proposing new work which was very exciting, but I was really seeking artists who had worked through a period of very heightened preoccupation with AIDS and the politics of AIDS with federal policies, [or] the lack thereof, and so I went out very specifically to look for that work. I know HD Ivey who had done a lot of work in that period, [and] I specifically wanted some pieces I remember seeing many many years ago that had been produced in the 80s during the Reagan and Bush years at a very important juncture in the AIDS epidemic politically in this country, as well as socially. I really needed them to be in the show because I wanted to create that plane and that continuity.”
Acosta described Witness as “powerful and moving but not in a very in your face kind of way. A lot of people came to me and said, ‘[Witness] is not sad, it’s just really beautiful.’ Gabriel Martinez’s “Anthology” for example, which is a lovely piece – those are the 12 albums. He took his Donna Summer LPs and basically destroyed them to create this piece. But it’s just beautiful, and it’s a very moving piece because it’s red, and it’s evocative of blood and body fluid. There’s almost a danger to it, but then it’s also celebratory in the fact that this was the music that a lot of gay men were dancing to in the midst of the epidemic. I think even many gay men were dancing to this music unaware that HIV/AIDS had entered these community circles and would wipe out almost two generations of gay men. So there was an implicit trust in myself that the artists [might] create stuff that could be sad [but] I trusted them to be able to have some reflective distance about the epidemic. So the show allows people to reflect and to go into personal spaces about remembrance and love and loss but not in a way that’s overwhelming.”
He explains that his purpose in curating this exhibition was “not necessarily to call communities to action but to ask communities to bear witness in their own way. Because there’s been 30 years of the epidemic, it’s difficult to draw people’s attention to something that’s been around for so long, [even though it] remains so incredibly central and devastating to some communities where its still having a huge impact – young gay men in this country, for example, [and] specifically young gay men of color. The infection rate [and] the prevalence in some of these communities is high and rivals in many ways some of the numbers that we see coming out of specific parts of Africa. And so it was a way to also have people recognize that it is still present, that it’s still very much a part of the fabric of our communities, however we define those. And also the title was [inspired by] a very important exhibition that was held in NYC [in 1989] curated by Nan Goldin called “Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing.” And that show remains one of the first and most powerful shows [addressing HIV/AIDS]. So in a sense I was also paying homage to that exhibition.”
“Witness” is showing through January 25 at Asian Arts Initiative (1219 Vine Street). It will be open for First Friday festivities on January 6, and the show will culminate in a closing program on January 25 that features performances by the “Shout” writing workshop participants, which is taught by one of the exhibiting artists, Susan DiPronio, and is offered in conjunction with “Witness” as a means to continue dialogue and reflection about HIV/AIDS in yet another expression of art.