Arts·Queeries

'We will not be silent': This artist newspaper takes back the dialogue surrounding HIV/AIDS

Anthea Black and Jessica Whitbread's new publication The HIV Howler brings HIV-positive voices from around the world to the front.

The HIV Howler brings HIV-positive voices from around the world to the front

The three editions of The HIV Howler. (The HIV Howler)

Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.

It all started with a conversation in their bed.

Anthea Black and Jessica Whitbread — both of whom have spent decades working at the intersection of AIDS, art and activism both in their home country of Canada and around the world — got into a discussion about their mutual dream of creating an artist-driven project that "did not stem from (or rely upon) service organizations or policy initiatives" that attempt to structure the lives of HIV-positive people. And thus, The HIV Howler was born.

A limited edition publication featuring three issues — "Criminalization-Medicalization," "Mentor-Mother" and "Sex-Pleasure" — The HIV Howler exists only in newspaper form (you can purchase it online or in-store at Art Metropole). It is the culmination of an incredible amount of work Black and Whitbread pursued from that initial conversation, alongside a global editorial advisory committee that includes Theodore Kerr, Charles Long, Mikiki, Darien Taylor and L'Orangelis Thomas.

"We wanted this critical and emotional impulse to begin with us, our friends and our experiences together," Black and Whitbread explain. "The name riffs on the idea of the town crier — the figure who spreads the news publicly through the streets. The Howler is also the person who will not shut up, who discloses too much. Where artists, writers and activists who speak 'too loudly' are seen as disruptive, we see ourselves and The Howler as a recognition that cultural criticism and AIDS activism are endurance practices, and that we — people living with AIDS, poz and negative, targeted and left behind — will not be silent."

Anthea Black and Jessica Whitbread at the launch of the HIV Howler at Art Metropole in Toronto on November 23, 2018. (Mikiki Burino)

At the new Art Metropole in Toronto's Museum of Contemporary Art earlier this month, Black and Whitbread launched The HIV Howler with a conversation about how crucial the dialogue expressed in the newspaper is in today's world.

"We wanted to think about how the paper could act as a loosely curated forum that could assemble many different overlapping dialogues, artistic practices, activist responses and sort of bring them all into one context together," Black said at the launch. "And also think about what our role as publishers could be to articulate a stance that we wanted to publish the work of HIV-positive artists only and really create a very concentrated format for that dialogue to take place."

She continued: "[We wanted] poz voices brought to the front, rather than added as a sort of tokenistic inclusion or marginalized within a bigger conversation that might be also encompassing people who commentate on AIDS from a position of not necessarily living with the virus. So we had an editorial policy from the beginning that we talked about between the two of us that we extended through our editorial advisory: we wanted to firmly establish that the voice of the paper was about the voices of poz people."

"It was an amazing process of trying to reach as far as we could to engage as many diverse artists about some of the challenges that were incredible were really thinking about HIV art and risk, what it looks like in different places, spaces and communities," Whitbread added. "What does it look like in Uganda? What does it look like in Brazil? What does it look like in Ukraine? Amsterdam? New York City?"

Copies of The HIV Howler. (The HIV Howler)

Between the three issues, an extraordinary wealth of voices are brought to the table.

In "Criminalization-Medicalization," for example, Canadian activists Alexander McClelland and Zoë Dodd co-pen the rousing essay "Thoughts on an Anarchist Response to Hepatitis C & HIV" — a piece which thoughtfully delves into misconceptions about anarchist theories and argues that they should be seriously concerned in the ongoing fight against the oppression and exploitation of people with HIV. The "Sex-Pleasure" edition, meanwhile, features an epic six-page transnational conversation between Taiwanese artist Kairon Lui and Mexican artist Manuel Solano, where the two intimately compare and contrast their realities. And in "Mentor-Mother," Shan Kelley writes a letter to his daughter, beginning with the address: "To my daughter Seva, I became your father 5 years after a positive HIV diagnosis..."

I'd link to all these pieces so you can read more, but The HIV Howler is (purposefully) not online. You can purchase all three editions here, and help support this necessary initiative in the process.

About the Author

Peter Knegt has worked for CBC Arts since 2016, writing the LGBTQ-culture column Queeries (winner of the 2019 Digital Publishing Award for best digital column in Canada) and playing integral roles in the launch and production of series The Filmmakers and Canada's a Drag. Beyond CBC, Knegt is also a stand-up comedian, the filmmaker of numerous short films and the author of the book About Canada: Queer Rights. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter with the same obvious handle: @peterknegt.