Art design

Portraits of Love and Loss from an HIV-Positive Childhood by Kia LaBeija

Many of the best-known cultural milestones of the AIDS epidemic in the United States – the play “Angels in America” ​​or the film “Philadelphia”, for example – centered on the urgent protest movement of the 1980s and 1990 and the experience of homosexuals (often white). 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, particularly among people of color, is less frequently described.

Photographer and performer Kia LaBeija, born HIV-positive in 1990, experienced the crisis as a child and lived with her mother, Kwan Bennett, an AIDS activist. (Bennett died of complications from the disease in 2004.) For LaBeija, the stigma of HIV was part of her childhood: skipping first term of high school because of side effects from her medications, worrying about how to disclose her status to his first romantic relationships.

AT New York Photography, the artist, born Kia Michelle Benbow, is currently presenting her first solo exhibition in a museum, which features intimate and glamorous self-portraits, documentary shots of her time on the ballroom scene in New York and ephemera personal from a childhood spent at the height of the AIDS epidemic in New York. These are edited excerpts from a recent interview.

You titled your show “Prepare My Heart”. What does this sentence mean to you?

The title came from this idea that my mother was preparing me for her death. She wrote me all these notebooks, things she wanted me to know, in case something happened to her. After finding out she was living with HIV, the notebooks became a bit more intentional. The story I wanted to tell is about survival, about being able to reach the age that I am now. It’s about how we prepare. I learned that my response was to document and archive a story that needs to be told. How do you prepare for and deal with grief, while finding happiness and love through it all?

The works on display are deeply connected to the story of your life, your life with HIV and your mother’s activism. What made you want to represent 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 sort of representation of myself was really the reason. Historically, when we talk about the AIDS epidemic, we talk a lot about the experience of gay, white men. These are, of course, stories that need to be told. But I think in great stories there are always people who are left out. My mother decided after her diagnosis that she wanted to be part of this community. She found Apicha, the Asian and Pacific Islander Coalition on HIV/AIDS. She wanted to find other people who looked like her – she was a straight, Asian, mixed-race 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 narrative of the AIDS epidemic.

In your “24” series of self-portraits, you use a brilliant aesthetic to capture the daily challenges of living with HIV. For example, in “Mourning Sickness,” you’re lying on your childhood bathroom floor, but the shot is quite gorgeous. Why did you make this choice?

This is a very important photo for me. Taking medicine since I was very young was very difficult, and in the morning I would get sick in that bathroom and then I would go to high school. Then, after my mother died, I locked myself in there, crying and moaning. I remember one time my dad had to call someone home to help me out. And that’s where the grief comes from.

I wanted to do it a little differently, because the AIDS images that I saw growing up are really important, but they’re harsh. When people only see these photographs, that’s the only context they have. I wanted people to engage differently. I wanted to be beautiful. What would this experience look like if it looked like the fantasy version? There is beauty in these stories.

The show also features photographs of your time in New York’s ballroom scene, where you eventually became the general mother of the LaBeija household. You were also a main dancer on the TV show “Pose”. What has your background in vogueing and the ballroom brought to your photography?

When I came to the ballroom, especially the LaBeija House, I had this character that I could play – it’s an ode to this character that exists in these images. I don’t use a camera remote, just a self-timer, because I really like having those 10 second exposures. “Beep…beep…beep…” It’s like a dance, like a vogue.

Your self-portraits are often located in real places in your daily life. How do you go about implementing these plans?

Usually I’m in the middle of something, and then I’m like, “I want to capture this moment really quickly,” and then I just keep doing what I was doing. For example, “Eleven” is a photo of me in my prom dress at a doctor’s office. I called my doctor and said, “I want to take this picture.” He’s like, “Just come for your date!” Like, “Wow, what a pretty dress. Now let’s draw your blood.

What other photographers have influenced you?

I went to MoMA when I was in college, and saw Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s “Hustlers” series. I looked at these photos and thought, “Wow, these are so theatrical.” But these are real people, real lives. I thought, “I want to do something like this.” It’s one of my biggest influences.

Your most recent series explores the challenges of finding love while dealing with the stigma of living with HIV, and features phrases like “I risked my life for you” projected onto your skin.

I’m just beginning to understand some of the very traumatic things that I went through, around 19 or 20, my first relationship. These years were very hard, especially around the idea of ​​disclosure. No one said, “It’s important that before you get into this relationship, you let this 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 during my first relationship. This person was upset because I no longer wanted to be in the relationship. It wasn’t the only time I heard those words. I have heard them over and over again. They cut so deep. I met someone in college, and it turned into a very psychological, emotional, and sexually abusive situation. Women’s stories are often not told, and we are not talking about the fact that more than half of women living with HIV will experience domestic violence. But the other part of this story is that I found love. When I met my partner, she said to me, “When you told me, I loved you even more.” And so I wanted to take a second photograph, to honor this trajectory.

There are archival materials on the show, including a legal handbook for HIV-positive parents. Why did you choose to include these ephemera from your childhood?

I just wanted to show things that I feel like people don’t see. The ephemeral is like proof that I was there. The women were there, the children were there. Many of them were probably dead by now. It is unfair that the lives of these children are almost never mentioned or depicted. They just disappear – when you think of those kids, you only think of the Ryan White story. When he died in 1990, we never saw him grow up. We were only able to experience it until his death. I put so much personal stuff in there because I feel like that’s the only way to reach people. I want to speak for myself, so that this story of children does not die with all these babies who died. My story is not that of everyone. But it is.

prepare my heart

Through May 8 at Fotografiska New York, 281 Park Avenue South, Manhattan; 212-433-3686;

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