Art

This creative piece will be part of my upcoming book Our Viral Lives: A Primer on Digital Storytelling Practices for HIV/AIDS Justice. Simon Nkoli was the first Black gay activist in South Africa. I spoke about him previously in New York City. You can listen to that talk here.

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But now, we are on the verge of a new South Africa. Now we are in the process of planning a non-racist, non-sexist future, and the protection of gay and lesbian rights must be part of that planning…As a black man, I am telling the system that I will no longer stay in a little box in Soweto or any Ghetto. As a gay man, I am telling the system that I will no longer stay in a little box in the closet. –Simon Nkoli

on the 7th floor of a large, rectangular building, in a cluttered wood-paneled room, I stare out at the city of johannesburg, sprawling and geographically isolated neighborhoods running all the way to the horizon. this is the city where simon nkoli was born and where he would die of aids-related complications in 1998.

what was I doing there, a white American man, in the South African LGBTQ archives?

what did I hope to get from accessing the mementos of Nkoli’s life, the traces of his body I would then have to reconstruct as an outsider?

I had, for a long time, wanted to visit south africa without really knowing why. But now, in this archive, I realized I was interested in the ability of a country to transform itself so quickly, that this space I was sitting in was just over 20 years old, and in that 20 years one of the most repressive political regimes in history had turned into a plural democracy, run by a majority black party.

& still, despite this progress
despite the representation of black voices in all levels of government
an anguish
queer and black and poor bodies dying of aids, even as people like simon spoke out

enter simon, the man imprisoned in a high profile travel for his activism against the apartheid, who came out to his brothers, and created a space for what it meant to be lgbtq and revolutionary. who would later, in the black townships, plaster his naked body, cock wrapped in a condom, for sex-positive messaging when he led the township aids project. simon, one of the few activists who really embodied the “gentle angry activist” – soften spoken, but intense, directed, and focused on empowering communities within.

simon, who died, and largely seems to be forgotten in history, except by a few people privy to just how impactful his legacy was.

on the 7th floor of a large, rectangular building, in a cluttered wood-paneled room, i only get a taste of who he is, fragments, but this is the burden and challenge of traditional archival research. I, as excavator, get the bone fragments and must make a skeleton that I breathe to life through narrative.

but do I understand the pattern of the bones?

can I say I know simon?

whose history and cultures do I betray in a crisis that is, without doubt, a global pandemic?

these are the questions I must ask in order to form an ethical consciousness as archivist. they are also questions that guide me, in my white cisgender male body, to communities disproportionately affected by HIV. the moment I step outside of wits university, people will warn me to be safe on the streets. they warn me that I will be viewed differently in my skin. but they don’t understand how I have always been viewed differently in my skin, so I find myself unafraid, like simon was unafraid, to challenge assumptions in this city.

today I pour over the international correspondence to simon. far flung, these letters and postcards elicit laughter, tears, optimism, and love. there’s a surprising letter signed by sir ian mckellen that thanks simon for his voice and encourages him to write his book (that will ultimately never materialize). a writer from toronto shares his treatment regime (is he still alive?). another man gives one of those sexualized joke cards, men dressed up in leather, as I try to imagine what their relationship could be.

despite all of the historical information I could access in the archives, this act of sorting through correspondence is the one I find most exciting. I examine every postmarked stamp, the quality of the writing, all of the different addresses, presumably as simon cycled through various lovers, and most of all the intimacy, bodies undiminished by contagion permeating every other aspect of their lives.

& hope
hope that even I don’t experience
now, in 2016
as an HIV negative man
living with access to preventative medicine

hope for me is the message of my dialogue with simon, why I’ve come to south africa at all, why I need south africa right now, as I’ve built out this archive. hope. because my brothers and sisters are dying. because simon died when he didn’t need to die. because…I break off from this thought…

I sometimes wonder if I have the wherewithal to sustain my activism in a time of crisis. I wonder because I project an image of strength when I feel vulnerable inside. I project an image of strength because I am the activist committed to this digital archive, an activist raising awareness about hiv/aids and I have to be strong. But I am as uncertain as anyone else, even as I have a language to express this uncertainty, a language that others may not have.

simon, simon, please speak to me if you are there
I don’t believe in ghosts or miracles or anything supernatural
but I believe you are present
here, in the lines of this text I read, written to you

simon, simon, know I’m listening to you even if I don’t understand everything
know I’m listening to you
you inspired a generation of activists in south africa
you inspire a new generation worldwide
the ones who have the chance to visit you, here, in Johannesburg

simon, simon, I am worried about the future
I’m worried about where activism will go
but I look at your body, often naked and vulnerable,
a body that vehemently resisted the closet
and find hope again.

I spoke about your legacy in 2016 in new york city
I hope I did you justice,
simon, we will do you justice—

every day I find hope again because of you
but now, we are on the verge of a new South Africa, you said in the mid-90s
today we are on the verge of a new world
where your stories are as much a part of that futurity as my own.

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I’ve been frustrated by the lack of spaces that exist for queer men to talk about their sexuality in meaningful ways. Often times these are dominated by formal scientific or academic language or, if dominated by the personal, it fails to adequately capture sex we’re having now and sex we want to give in ten years from now. Historical analysis and nostalgia for the kinds of movements and communities we had are warranted. But what about people like me, under the age of 35, who have grown up largely post-AIDS, whose sexuality has almost entirely been tied to digital technology?

Enter the Annals of Gay Sexuality 2015:

annals_of_gay_sexuality_cover

Image: Zeitgeist (modified) by Pablo Cáceres

As they say:

AGS contributors expose the present-day tastes, textures, sights and smells of our sex, from the mating rituals at a group sex potluck to sexting between cis- and transgender bears; from mile-high club poetry about Patient Zero to pillow talk between friends who are untangling sero-discordant envies. Both heart-breaking and hair-raising, these authors and artists whip it out and make us gag on our HIV-saturated gay lives and in the process evoke frothy new cultural and sexual paradigms.

I’m interested in the mix between the high and low brow, between stories that might be more conventional and others that push the boundaries of sexual ethics and gender identity in playful way. It’s also unapologetic in its sexuality, almost in a campy way. The body gets centered in discussions on sex, which should be a obvious, but this often isn’t the case. Getting lost in abstraction or totally removing “I” from the equation is all too common.

I’m definitely going to be submitting a proposal for the 2016 edition. (The proposals are due on December 1st, though earlier submissions are always welcome.) I want to look at having sex in a global sexual culture. How can we navigate and respect differences in terms of country of origin, race, class and the access to sexual health services? Why is there an inherent power in these sexual experiences? And what, exactly, is it that we discover through travels and traversals of identity?

If you have any idea, big or small, I’d encourage you to submit as well. Getting a chance to experiment and collaborate with others on these topics is a rarity, so get on it while you can! Feel free to share your thoughts and ideas below as well, even if you don’t think you’ll submit anything.

kyle_bella_recliningbefore he clicks the shutter on the camera all of the muscles in my face relax, even though my body is contorted (this shot took what seemed like 20 minutes to compose), & i let myself go because i wanted to be captured in a state of abandon, like i was free for a moment at least, free from what though or who, i can’t quite tell, but i wanted to be looking at him, not the camera lens, i wanted to welcome him closer to this version of me.

in retrospect: who is this person i’m looking at? am i a 70s pinup figure? if so, in 10 years time would i be dead with aids? is it morbid to always think of aids? i can’t help it, though, when the image that is created screams QUEER PHOTOGRAPHY 1970-1985, & doubly so when that curvature of my ass welcomes somebody’s cock. come inside of me right now i seem to suggest & for the first time in my life i don’t feel guilty.

it’s odd not feeling guilty. my whole life i’ve felt guilty about sex, my body a wasteland, space when i could be fucked into oblivion, because I bore, invisibly, the scars of queer erasure & death & aids, always there, aids that jumped from the art books i read, the plays i watched, the men i met, but still hush hush, our culture one stern daddy telling us not to talk about those things, the very things that were killing all of us, whether physically or psychologically.

but then the camera shutter i anticipated clicked — “keep your eyes open,” he said just before this moment — & i was no longer erased.

every muscle loosened up, collapsing into the oblivion of my own making, 70s pinup, a sex symbol not giving a single fuck about aids for a second, undressing the object of my desire with soft cerulean eyes: would he put his tongue in my ass? would we make each other moan? would we? what can we do now? what will we do? done?

i wish everyone could feel this kind of rapture in their body. but it’s 2015, so i know how difficult it is. i wish we could all just get rid of fear, false ideologies & mythologies of aids. i wish we could lust & love each other better, not shame those on the front lines of this epidemic doing what they can to minimize risk. i wish we could all feel comfortable connecting with poz artists, lovers & culture makers who are giving us insights into leading sex positive, stigma-free lives.

when i look at this photograph again & feel every muscle loosen up in my body, i think about what i’ve only begun doing to be a better sexual being, to be better to myself because i’m confronting & transcending death through my presence. i probably would have died have been alive in the 70s. but i wasn’t alive then. i was born into a time and moment when i have a capacity to confront the real problem in society: the figures telling queer men to hush hush & worry about “deception” from those people living with hiv.

part of my manifesto (if you can call living a manifesto): i will continue to bare it all for the photographic lens, for the photographer himself, for him, whoever he is, because my body is, ultimately, the most powerful force on the frontlines of this epidemic. i will let you turn your eyes toward me if you’re willing to let your guard down, at first, & maybe eventually let it go.

as a logical progression: undress me. let me undress you. come closer. come…

I want to believe, above all else, that I’m invincible. 1982: 618 dead But that would require distorting the reality of our times. 1983: 2,118 dead As I go through and begin cataloging dead bodies, I start wondering why I’m still alive. 1984: 5,596 dead What are some of the names of these men? I don’t really know, except that Foucault died this year, but he’s not American. 1985: 12,529 dead These unnamed men, aberrations like me, but not quite, because I’m still alive. My body isn’t killing itself.

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We know we’ve been quiet lately – but we promise it’s because we’re gearing up for a lot of great things to come in 2015! There are going to be new updates and posts next week but due to Christmas tomorrow, we’re going to be quiet the rest of the week. In the meantime, remember what this season is all about and hold your family or friends close to you. To celebrate, we wanted to share this black and white photo of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring embracing.

Basquiat_Haring_Embracesource: The Red List

Keith Haring is everywhere these days. You’re probably heard of the Keith Haring: Political Line exhibit at the deYoung Museum in San Francisco that’s currently open until February. You might have seen him on t-shirts, tote bags or windbreakers through the UNIQLO x MoMA collaboration or in any other number of fashion brand collaborations. If you haven’t heard of one of these exhibits or partnerships, you probably have seen a Keith Haring painting before without knowing it. Bold, graphic lines of figures, creatures and symbols that are intertwined. Before his death from AIDS-related complications, Haring was a bit of darling in our cultural landscape: universally liked by radical queer activists and the Sesame Street crowd. Today I had a chance to visit Pace Print’s small but mighty exhibit of (mostly) black and white limited edition prints.

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Francisco_Hurtz_Art

Francisco Hurtz, “man as sexual object” (2014) – reposted with permission

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In his own words: “I think this artworks talks for itself…  It’s about turning men vulnerable as woman have been for a long time.”