On Monday, May 22, contemporary arts organization Visual AIDS presented its 12th annual Visual AIDS Vanguard Awards (VAVA Voom) at event space Three Sixty° in New York’s Tribeca neighborhood. In awarding visual artists Zoe Leonard and Eric Rhein and curator-archivist Sur Rodney (Sur) each with their own VAVA prize, the organization, which promotes HIV prevention and AIDS awareness through its visual projects and supports artists living with HIV (through technical assistance, materials grants and more), recognized three visionary individuals whose own lives and work have honored those lost to the epidemic over the course of the last thirty-plus years.
Hosted by humorist and performance artist Morgan Bassichis and featuring performances by drag artist Sasha Velour (of Rupaul’s Drag Race fame), performance artist Narcissister (whose performance has to be seen to believed; Google her now!) and shock-rock group Kembra Pfahler & the Girls of Karen Black, the fundraising dinner, which also featured a silent auction and music by DJ Ryan McNamara, was more downtown art party than by-the-numbers gala (read: fun and funky). As one attendee was overheard saying, “This sure as hell ain’t the Met Ball.”
In her acceptance speech, feminist and queer activist Leonard, who in 1991 cofounded the collective fierce pussy, known for its in-your-face activism, spoke about the many friends and fellow artists she lost to AIDS as she was coming of age in New York’s 1980s East Village. Shunning the traditional moment of silence for the dead, Leonard instead prevailed on guests to summon those who have died of AIDS by shouting their names and asking them to accompany us in our ongoing fight against HIV and other foes “because we need their help in these times.” Known primarily for her photography and sculpture, which touches on subjects of loss, subjectivity and change, Leonard also wrote the 1992 text “I want a president” (“I want a dyke for president. I want a person with aids for president…”), which in election year 2016 became a mantra of resistance to the status quo.
Sur, who served as codirector of the legendary Gracie Mansion Gallery in the East Village from 1983 to 1988, traced his trajectory as a curator and addressed the importance of his work as an archivist whose mission is to preserve the estates and legacy of artists lost to AIDS. (He also donned a blond wig that once belonged to Warhol superstar Candy Darling that he’d once received as a prize.) An early champion of artists such as Nicholas Moufarrege, Tim Greathouse and Andreas Senser, all of whom died of AIDS, he has helped shepherd their work and that of many others into exhibitions and public and private collections. He also helped establish the Frank Moore Archive Project of Visual AIDS, which serves as an important visual library and research source.
Long-term survivor and lifelong artist Rhein, also a presence in the East Village in the 1980s, spoke emotionally about his very personal connection to Visual AIDS. As a past recipient of Visual AIDS grants and one of the archive’s “First 10 Artists,” Rhein personifies the organization’s vital mission. Although Rhein’s work spans photography and collage—often in the form of self-portraits—he is best known for Leaves (1996–present), his ongoing wire-sculpture installation project honoring the friends he has lost to AIDS. Originally, conceived as 80 small, fragile sculptures reflecting the resilience and vulnerability of life, the project has grown to 250 pieces as the epidemic continues to take its toll.
At the end of the evening, Visual AIDS board member Pat Owens recognized Brice Brown, who served on the group’s board of directors from 2008 to 2015 and as board president for four of those years, for his inspiring service to the organization.
And finally, it was time to wish a bittersweet farewell to executive director Nelson Santos, who is retiring from the organization after 17 years. As a tribute, Visual AIDS artist Frederick Weston gathered together other artist members onstage to form a cozy huddle around Santos as Weston serenaded him with his rendition of the song “For Good,” from Wicked. Last but not least, Visual AIDS associate director Esther McGowan was heartily welcomed as the organization’s new executive director replacing Santos with a round of applause—on the same night as her birthday no less. Cheers to the future!
For more info, visit visualaids.org/