Largely relegated to the margins of history and contemporary conversation, the social justice work of Black cis and trans women, as well as cis and trans women of color, gets the front-and-center placement it merits, in “Metanoia: Transformation Through AIDS Archives and Activism.”
On view through April 5 at the ONE Gallery in West Hollywood, the archival exhibition’s collection of posters, newsletters, pamphlets, and other ephemera invites viewers to contemplate community-based responses to the AIDS crisis.
As noted by the curators, “Metanoia” seeks to “draw out the larger context in which Black women with HIV in prison were changed into agents of transformation for themselves, their communities, and all people living with or affected by HIV.”
Culled from the holdings of the ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives at the University of Southern California Libraries alongside those of NYC’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center (where “Metanoia” debuted in 2019), the assembled materials focus on the work of those who “strongly advocated for health, well-being, access to HIV medication, and compassionate release for themselves and their sisters experiencing incarceration in the early to mid-1990s.”
“It is not an exhaustive show,” notes NYC-based activist, artist, journalist, and “Metanoia” co-curator Theodore “Ted” Kerr.
“It’s not trying to tell all the history of AIDS activism in California and Los Angeles. It’s trying gesture to two experiences: One, of Katrina Halslip, a Black woman living with HIV, in Bedford Hills [Correctional Facility for Women], who helped change the definition of AIDS to include women, in 1992. And for me, the object that most invites that is a beautiful black and white photograph of taken from a video about women involved in AIDS activism.”
The other experience, notes Kerr, “is about Joann Walker, a Black woman who, once she was incarcerated, found out about her HIV status, and then started advocating for the compassionate release of women living with HIV, so they could die with dignity at home, rather than the hell of prison.”
Walker, notes Kerr, was released from prison “a mere two weeks before her death, barely able to walk.” The item that best exemplifies Walker’s power, he says, is an iPad containing the letters exchanged by Walker and Judy Greenspan (whose holdings are in the ONE Archives). “In these letters,” says Kerr, “we learn that Joann Walker is a smart and funny and fierce woman who is fighting for freedom, for herself and other people.”
“Metanoia” seeks to rectify the marginalization of prison reform advocates by the art world and historians—but it’s not just about legacy: The exhibition also champions the work of contemporary activists in and around the greater Los Angeles area.
“The LA commission made lots of sense to us,” says Umi Hsu, Director of Content Strategy at the ONE Archives Foundation, “because the historical papers [in the NYC version] featured the activism work of two important collectors, Judy Greenspan and Judy Sisneros. They were instrumental in the HIV/AIDS movement, within incarceration activism, and led a lot of work here in California.”
With Greenspan residing in Oakland and Sisneros in Los Angeles, “It was our wish to kind of bring it home, in a sense,” says Hsu, noting that the bulk of the exhibition comes from the ONE Archives’ collection of materials gathered by Sisneros, while objects from Greenspan’s collection came from The Center in New York. Hsu add that the West Coast iteration of the exhibition is imbued with elements meant to “connect the show and its history to the present. The curators did a really fantastic job of reaching out to HIV activists working in Los Angeles county, that are doing really important work in our current day… so we have these dialogues of past and present.”
In that manner, “Metanoia” sends “a message to the people of California, that there are strong and powerful women, men, and people among them who are doing amazing AIDS activism, who have done amazing AIDS activism,” says Kerr, who curated the NYC and LA exhibitions alongside Katherine Cheairs and Alexandra Juhasz—all of whom are members of What Would an HIV Doula Do?, a collective of artists, filmmakers, writers, and activists committed to, they note, “ensuring that community plays a key role in the current AIDS response.”
“I’m a Canadian living in New York [City],” says Kerr, who “grew up craving more information about HIV/AIDS, in terms of activism, education, and culture. And there wasn’t a lot, and what was available was often about New York City—which of course is such an important epicenter of AIDS activism and culture. But it’s not the only place. So to have an exhibition about California AIDS activism in California is important, to put those people on the historical record.”
What’s more, says Kerr—who teaches a class at NYC’s The New School, on how to memorialize AIDS while it’s still ongoing—the conversation around HIV/AIDS activism is too-often viewed within the context of past efforts.
“Metanoia,” he notes, “connects to what’s being done now, because archives are only as powerful as the people who use them, and how they’re activated in the present… Diving into the most urgent concerns of the present is the best form of memorial, because it’s ensuring that nobody died in vain, and that all the activism of the past is being carried forward, for the benefit of the future.”
Respect for the present tense begins before you enter the actual gallery, says Kerr. “You are invited in by this bright yellow wall that’s facing the windows, and on that wall are nine portraits of amazing activists from New York City and Los Angeles, who are doing intersectional activism that’s saving people’s lives every day… and there are photos and bios and interviews.”
That supporting text is an important example of contemporary archiving, says Kerr, “because it’s not enough to say someone’s name. We wanted the tactics they used to survive and thrive, to also be part of the historical record.”
NYC’s Lolita Lens and LA’s Black Queen Photography are the artists who shot the documentary photographic series, whose subjects include Chela Demuir, Krystal “Krys” Shelley, Sabel Samone-Loreca, and Yuè Begay—activists in LA working on issues related to HIV/AIDS.
“Then you go inside,” says Hsu, of the ONE Gallery, “and you’re encouraged to get close to the wall, to this intimate history. The space is set up so visitors can have a proximity to historical objects as well as reproductions, documents, and papers.” Visitors also, they add, “are able to experience large-scale blowups and projections of maps, that locate where the demonstrations were happening in the past.”
A Jan. 17 opening night program brought together all of the activists whose portraits comprise the yellow wall series. “They gave remarks,” recalls Hsu, “speaking on their experiences of doing activism work, and how activism and intersectionality play a large role in each of their personal and activist lives.
Two-spirit Navajo activist and LA county resident Yuè Begay began the program with a Land Acknowledgment ceremony—another instance, says Hsu, “in which the exhibition connects across different social groups, while resonating on the history of HIV/AIDS, and the People of Color’s experience.”
The program concluded with, notes Hsu, “Jana Zainabu, a Black woman poet who has been active in the spoken word and poetry scene for decades,” and wrote original poetry “in response to the exhibit.”
Hsu added that during the program, they were “particularly moved by a handout with a very provocative [imprisonment-themed] activism chant,” from the 1990s work of ACT UP Los Angeles.
“This is something,” says Hsu, “that spoke to me, especially when the curators led the chanting with our audience. It really, truly created an experience of connecting with the past, with the history.”
Greenspan, Hsu notes, “who probably led some of the chants” in the ’90s, “ended up leading and modifying the chants, and making them more relevant to current incarceration rights issues.”
Noting that Greenspan “cringes” at the use of the word “inmate,” Kerr says she asked that the audience replace the chant’s original phrase “Inmates with AIDS under attack!,” with “Prisoners with AIDS under attack!”
In doing so, says Kerr, “It reminded us that as much as we were a bunch of people standing in a West Hollywood art gallery, we’re also people with political power—and our language has an effect on what we do, and how we can create change.”
“Metanoia” is on view through April 5, at the ONE Gallery (626 N. Robertson Blvd., West Hollywood). Hours: Fri.-Sun., 11 AM – 2PM and 3PM – 6 PM. For info, call 323-968-0410. For more info, visit onearchives.org/now-open-the-one-gallery-in-west-hollywood.
NOTE: On Tues., Feb. 11, (6:30 PM reception, 7 PM screening), the ONE Archives Foundation will co-host an event with the Foundation for the AIDS Monument: A screening of “Poz Roz,” a digital comedy series exploring the life of twentysomething Rozzlyn Mayweather, after an HIV+ diagnosis rocks her already shaky world. The event takes place at the Barnsdall Gallery Theatre, inside Barnsdall Art Park (4814 Hollywood Blvd.). After the screening, a panel discussion will be moderated by Tony-nominated actress, singer, author, and activist Sheryl Lee Ralph. Panelists include “Poz Roz” creator, writer, director, and producer Carlton Jordon, “Poz Roz” star Chauntae Pink, HIV/AIDS activist and APLA Health Outreach Worker Porchia Dees, and HIV/AIDS activist, artist, and blogger Lynnea Lawson. Admission is free, but tickets are required. For ticket info, click here.