Queer Artists of Colour in NYC during the AIDS Epidemic

Below are my opening remarks (slightly revised) for a panel on “Queer Artists of Colour in NYC during the AIDS Epidemic,” at the College Art Association (CAA) conference, held in NYC on February 13th, 2019.

Two years ago, when the CAA conference was last held here in New York, I dedicated my paper presentation to Jann Marson and Amy Bingaman. Two friends: one a doctoral student in Art History at the University of Toronto where I teach, the other a grad school classmate while we were at the University of Chicago. Both had died in the past year: so young and smart and full of warmth, humor, and generosity. On that occasion I was part of a panel on Queer Art History, chaired by my friend, the young art historian and curator, Robert Summers. This past summer, Robert suddenly passed away. I received word just days after we had exchanged emails, in which we celebrated the acceptance of our respective CAA panel proposals for this year’s conference. In his email and in his customary way, Robert said: “we fucking better have drinks in NYC!” Well here’s to you Robert! I raise a glass in honour of your memory, and on the panel that you had envisioned.

When I heard of Robert’s death, I immediately knew that this panel must be convened. I wrote to Hunter O’Hanlan [Executive Director of CAA], who unhesitatingly supported the idea and made the necessary arrangements so that we could go forward. Robert was a dear friend and I will always admire his curating and writing, most especially in foregrounding the sex and sexiness, and the unapologetic in-your-face protest of contemporary queer and feminist art. This work included Robert’s founding of the not-for-profit Queer Art Network, in 2016, along with a particularly longstanding and special devotion to the work of Vaginal Davis. To all of his work in queer art history, Robert brought a degree of irreverence, wit, passion and fearlessness that will be missed by so many of us, including each time we gather at the CAA conference. I wish he were still here. I wish I didn’t have to serve as Chair Designate. I just wanted to see him up here, once again. Let’s give him the session that he wanted.

I will keep my remaining comments brief but allow me to say just a few things—axiomatic, no doubt—by way of introduction. AIDS cannot be thought outside of racism, and racism cannot be thought separate and apart from AIDS and all other manifestations of the biopolitical and necropolitical. The ways in which AIDS was racialized in New York City during the AIDS epidemic (and continues to be, right up to the present moment), is different from the ways in which it has been racialized say, in South Africa or other parts of the world. Indeed, between Manhattan and the Bronx, or even between upper and lower Manhattan, East Side or West Side, one must realize and contend with the essential multiplicity and heterogeneity that is the convergence of race, ethnicity, geography, art and AIDS. Which is also to say that it is impossible to designate and to know where each term in the title of our session begins and ends as a topic and object of inquiry (as well as a lived reality). Whether this be in terms of queer (vis-à-vis the history of LGBTQ politics), artists and art (the “who” and “what”), race and ethnicity (“of colour”), New York (i.e. the city); AIDS, and Epidemic.

In turn, if we do not attend to the irrecuperable losses, and the very real disappearances in the history of AIDS—the inescapability of these losses and disappearances—then our stories, and any possible understanding that they might lead to, will be compromised. To the precise extent that they will be limited to what has been preserved and remembered, or that goes without saying—business as usual. To learn how to die collectively: this is one of the lessons that AIDS, and most importantly the artistic and activist work that has occurred in response, bestows to us. Memories and histories that always will be incomplete in the midst of a pandemic that is far from over. This is about an essential inconsolability, but also of what William Haver has described as “the ultimately unspeakable radical historicity and sociality of erotic existentiality” (Foreword to Ricco, The Logic of the Lure, xi).

We are honoured today to have three speakers, each of whom brings to the discussion a unique perspective: historical and poetic, artistic and critical, autobiographical and impersonal. Yet no less embodied, and no less a part of a history that we share, even as we continue to figure out how that sharing might happen. Something like what Robert Reid-Pharr has simply and aptly described as the ethics of our remembrance.

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