May 21, 2022

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Kia LaBeija’s Portraits of Love and Loss From an H.I.V. Childhood

6 min read

Many of the best-known cultural milestones about the AIDS epidemic in the United States — the play “Angels in America,” or the movie “Philadelphia,” for example — centered on the urgent protest movement of the 1980s and 1990s and the experience of (often white) gay men. These are heart-wrenching stories of love and unfathomable loss. Yet the impact of the crisis on women, families and children living with H.I.V. and AIDS, especially among people of color, is less frequently portrayed.

The photographer and performer Kia LaBeija, who was born H.I.V. positive in 1990, experienced the crisis as a child living with her mother, Kwan Bennett, an AIDS activist. (Bennett died of complications of the disease in 2004.) For LaBeija, the stigma of H.I.V. was a part of her childhood: skipping first period in high school because of the side effects of her medications, worrying about how to disclose her status in her first romantic relationships.

At Fotografiska New York, the artist, born Kia Michelle Benbow, is currently presenting her first solo museum show, which features intimate, glamorous self-portraits, documentary shots from her time in New York’s ballroom scene, and personal ephemera from a childhood spent at the height of the AIDS epidemic in New York. These are edited excerpts from a recent interview.

You’ve titled your show, “Prepare My Heart.” What does that phrase mean to you?

The title came from this idea that my mother was preparing me for her death. She wrote all these notebooks to me, of things that she wanted me to know, in case something happened to her. After she found out she was living with H.I.V., the notebooks got a little more intentional. The story that I wanted to tell is about survival, being able to make it to the age that I am now. It’s about how we prepare ourselves. I’ve learned that my response has been to document and archive a history that needs telling. How do you prepare for and process grief, and still find happiness and love through all of that?

The works on show are deeply connected to your life story, of living with H.I.V. and your mother’s activism. What made you want to represent this autobiographical element in your work?

There’s something inside of me that wanted to tell my story, even when I was really young. I think not seeing any kind of representation of myself was really the reason. Historically, when we talk about the AIDS epidemic, we talk a lot about the gay, white, male experience. Those, of course, are stories that should be expressed. But I think in great narratives, there’s always people that are left out. My mother decided, after her diagnosis, that she wanted to be a part of that community. She found Apicha, the Asian and Pacific Islander coalition on H.I.V./AIDS. She wanted to find other people who were like her — she was a heterosexual, Asian, mixed-race woman. Especially in Asian communities, it was like, “Asians don’t get AIDS.” I want to talk about women, children and families in this greater narrative of the AIDS epidemic.

In your self-portrait series “24,” you use a glossy aesthetic to capture the everyday challenges of living with H.I.V. For example, in “Mourning Sickness,” you’re lying on the floor of your childhood bathroom, but the photo is quite beautiful. Why did you make that choice?

That’s a really important photograph for me. Taking medication from when I was very young was very difficult, and in the mornings, I would get sick in that bathroom and then go to high school. Then, after my mother died, I locked myself in there, crying and wailing. I remember one time my dad had to get someone to come to the house to help get me out. And so that’s where the mourning part comes from.

I wanted to do it a little different, because the images about AIDS that I grew up seeing are really important, but they’re hard. When people only see those photographs, that’s the only context that they have. I wanted people to engage differently. I wanted to be beautiful. What would this experience look like if it was like the fantasy version? There is beauty in these stories.

The show also features photographs from your time performing in the New York ballroom scene, where you eventually became Overall Mother of the House of LaBeija. You were also a principal dancer in the TV show “Pose.” What did your vogueing and ballroom experience bring to your photography?

When I came to ballroom, especially to the House of LaBeija, I had this character I could play — it’s an ode to this character that exists in those pictures. I don’t use a camera remote control, just a self-timer, because I really enjoy having those 10 seconds of getting into pose. “Beep … beep … beep …” It’s like a dance, like vogueing.

Your self-portraits are often set in real locations from your everyday life. How do you go about setting up these shots?

Usually I’m in the middle of something, and then I’m like, “I want to capture this moment real quick,” then I keep going about doing what I was doing. For example, “Eleven” is a photograph of me in my prom dress at a doctor’s office. I called my doctor and was like, “I want to take this photograph.” He’s like, “Just come in for your appointment!” Like: “Wow, what a pretty dress. Now let’s take your blood.”

Which other photographers have influenced you?

I went to MoMA when I was in college, and I saw Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s “Hustlers” series. I looked at those photos, and was like, “Wow, they’re so theatrical.” But these are real people, real lives. I thought, “I want to do something like that.” That’s one of my biggest influences.

Your most recent series explores the challenges of finding love while dealing the stigma of living with H.I.V., and features phrases like “I risked my life for you” projected onto your skin.

I’m just starting to understand some of the very traumatic things I experienced, around 19 or 20, my first relationship. Those years were very hard, especially around the idea of disclosure. No one said, “It’s important that before you engage in that relationship, that you let that person know that this is what I’m dealing with.” I didn’t have anyone to talk to about it.

“I risked my life for you” — the first time I heard that was from my first relationship. That person was upset because I didn’t want to be in the relationship anymore. That wasn’t the only time I heard those words. I heard them over and over again. They cut so deep. I met someone in college, and it turned into a very psychological, emotional, sexually abusive situation. The stories of women are not often told, and we don’t talk about the fact that over half of women that are living with H.I.V. will experience intimate partner violence. But the other part of that story is that I have found love. When I met my partner, she said, “When you told me, I just loved you even more.” And so I wanted to make a second photograph, to honor that trajectory.

There are archival materials in the show, including a legal handbook for parents with H.I.V. Why did you choose to include these ephemera from your childhood?

I just wanted to show things that I feel that people don’t get to see. The ephemera is like evidence that I was there. Women were there, children were there. A lot of them were probably dead now. It’s unfair that those children’s lives are hardly ever talked about or represented. They just disappear — when we think about these children, we only think about Ryan White’s story. When he died in 1990, we never got to see him grow up. We only got to experience up until he passed away. I put so much personal stuff in there because I feel like that’s the only way I can reach people. I want to speak for myself, so that this history of children doesn’t die with all those babies that died. My story is not everyone’s story. But it is one.

Prepare My Heart

Through May 8 at Fotografiska New York, 281 Park Avenue South, Manhattan; 212-433-3686; fotografiska.com.

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