The 11th annual Visual AIDS Vanguard Awards (VAVA Voom) recognize the contributions of individuals who, through their work, talent and dedication, strengthen our communities and reinforce the mission of Visual AIDS. This year Visual AIDS is proud to honor Glenn Ligon, Gregg Bordowitz and Jessica Whitbread.
Here, Visual AIDS interviews Artist+ Member Kia Labeija about the art and activism of VAVA honoree Jessica Whitbread. Whitbread is this year’s recipient of the Bill Olander VAVA, presented to an individual in the creative arts living with HIV, and named in honor of the late New Museum curator and co-founder of Visual AIDS.
Visual AIDS: How did you and Jessica first meet?
Kia Labeija: I first met Jessica through my good friend Cassidy Gardner. We sat in a coffee shop in the village chatting about some ideas we had for what is now our collective GrenAIDS. As we exchanged words she received a text from Jessica about her project “Tea Time,” inquiring if she knew of any positive women that would be willing to meet her for a tea party. As she sat across from me she was excited to share the news and I was more than willing and able to be present. It was a day in March when we met, I wasn’t sure what to expect, what she looked like, how we would connect. She seemed warm through the text messages we exchanged, so I braced myself to be vulnerable. She opened the door to her hosts apartment in Brooklyn with a big smile. I felt immediately welcomed and excited. This was my first time engaging with other positive women since I lost my mother and all the community that vanished with her. I remember going to the Hello Kitty store to get my tea cup to exchange. It was pink, and sweet and fun and I imagined whom would receive it. That first day lead to a relationship that I cherish beyond words. I love how the universe brings people together.
VA: What does community mean to you, and how has Jessica fostered a sense of community for you among women living with HIV+?
KL: Community is so important to me. It takes a village to raise a child, and Jessica seems to be this tribe’s mother, bringing everyone together. Before I met Jessica I had just began to meet other people living with HIV, mostly men and trans women. Our experiences were different, and while I appreciated our differences, I was praying for the day I could meet some cis gendered women whom I had common ground with. Through Jessica, I have been connected with many, and my community has grown infinitely—for that I am blessed.
VA: Can you describe your experience and the importance of making and receiving Valentines during Jessica’s annual LOVE POSITIVE WOMEN events?
KL: I can recall receiving a valentine last year, I was so surprised and thrilled. I felt so loved, which can be difficult for women living positive. When the world refers to you as unclean, when they put blame and shame on you it can be difficult to love yourself. I laughed and teared up a bit when I got mine in the mail. This year I finally got to make one, it was so much fun that I didn’t want to leave, an hour and a half seemed to go by so quickly. As I was finishing up, a women can into the room, she said hi to me in a way that felt familiar. She turned around and asked if my name is Kia, ad I said ’yes’ in that way that I always do, with an excitement to be recognized. I immediately knew who this person was, a long lost momma of sorts. Someone who knew me and my mother when I was just a little girl. Her daughter and I used to play together when we were kids, both little positive babies with mothers who would do anything for their daughters. We both cried and screamed and laughed in disbelief, it had been 20 years since we saw each other last. This is the importance of LOVE POSITIVE WOMEN.
VA: Do you have any favorites artworks by Jessica?
KL: My favorite work by Jessica is Tea Time. It has been a staple in my life and I am forever grateful for it. That is the beauty of art, it has the ability to make changes in the world.
VA: Can you tell us more about performing during Jessica’s NO PANTS NO PROBLEM party last year?
KL: Ha ha ha. NO PANTS NO PROBLEM was so much fun. I believe I did a Crystal Waters song, bringing back the old school vibes, always. I love not having to wear pants, it was incredibly liberating dancing in my underwear. Its even more fun to see your audience in their underwear!!
VA: Describe Jessica in a sentence.
KL: She who smiles with the strength of a thousand warrior women.
Kia Labeija, who comes out of New York ball scene’s legendary House of Labeija, is a multidisciplinary artist born and raised in New York City. Her digital portraits re-imagine nonfictional events that explore the intersections of community, politics, fine art, and activism. She is a featured artist in the traveling exhibition Art, AIDS, America, where she stands as the only female artist of color living with and born with HIV. As a voguer she has performed and curated events in collaboration with MoMa PS1, The Brooklyn Museum, and AFROPUNK. She also a co-founded the artists’ collective #GrenAIDS, which uses art and popular culture to connect with younger generations and foster a revival of HIV and AIDS reflection, one that celebrates life and love.
As a queer woman living with HIV, Jessica Whitbread explores her own sexuality and curiosity, often in public places, in hopes of making it easier for others to do the same. Jessica has a Masters from York University in Building Communities to Ignite Social Change.She works in the realm of social practice and community art, often merging art and activism to engage a diversity of audiences in critical dialogue.Her ongoing projects include LOVE POSITIVE WOMEN: Romance Starts at Home, No Pants No Problem, Tea Time, and PosterVIRUS (AIDS ACTION NOW!). Whitbread is currently the Global Community Relations & Mobilization Manager for the International Community of Women Living with HIV (ICW), a board member of the Canadian HIV Legal Network, a member of the Steering Committee for AIDS ACTION NOW!, and a Visual AIDS Artist Member.