By: Kris Tangco
The HIV crisis has gone on for four decades, and for four decades the world has struggled against it. Doctors, scientists, educators, policy makers, writers, artists -- people of all walks and all colors have, in their own ways, sought to make sense of this crisis and its relationship with society. From citizens to states, from medicine to prayer, from cures to cries for reform, people’s visions of how to respond to the crisis are as diverse as the people who bear its scars. The goal of this series is to give you a glimpse of these visions: the roles people of different passions and disciplines have played in this crisis that, as of March 2016 as recorded by the Department of Health’s Epidemiology Bureau, is infecting 25 Filipinos daily.
From left to right: Tokwa Peñaflorida, Henri Palma, and Kay Aranzanso
It was a muggy April evening as I sat down at a coffee shop in Capitol Commons with Henri Palma, Kay Aranzanso, and Tokwa Peñaflorida. Lamps lay low over the counter table where we were seated, the warm light creating a lazy haze that hung low between us. Other people chatted heartily while the busy sound of aspirating coffeemakers punctuated the noise of the air.
Henri Palma, a program director of a corporate foundation, is in-charge of exhibits and arts appreciation activities spearheaded by the foundation. I sat beside Henri, facing across the table two of his close friends, Kay and Tokwa. Both were upcoming artists who have worked HIV advocacy into their art before, like the The Red Letter Days exhibit of the advocacy group, Red Whistle.
That evening, we talked about how art speaks out for and with people living with HIV (PLHIV).
Creating Art for the cause HIV/AIDS
Visual art, with technical skill and creative genius, has the potential to make real our innermost longings. On the finite surface of a canvas or the three-dimensional space of a sculpture or an installation, art is an attempt to create representations of realities that transcend these borders. Artists like Kay and Tokwa draw their inspiration from the peculiarities of everyday, to create images that convey perspectives artists have about various objects and facets of existence and their nuances . For these two artists, we see how their work takes on an established tradition that seeks to make art more amenable to non-conservative views on sexuality.
The conversation focused on how HIV is transmitted. From drug use to unprotected sex, we closed in on the more intimate and vulnerable corners -- spaces and situations that society prefers kept behind closed doors. As Kay and Tokwa talk about their work, they undress sex and its meanings, from one’s quest for power to one’s search for intimacy and self-esteem.
“The focus of my art is mainly erotic art. This is my way of studying the female body,” Kay shares. Fascinated with female anatomy, she describes her nudes as very raw. “As a woman, my take on the female body is different: The male habit of objectifying the female form is removed.” Her figures depart from traditional portrayals of women set by popular culture and trends, which focused on details such as fair skin, plump breasts, narrow waists and curvy hips. Turning her paintbrush away from these, Kay’s art concerns itself with essence: what makes a woman a woman.
Tokwa, on the other hand, sets his brush to the male form: as he creates a substantial amount of homoerotic art as part of his extensive oeuvre, which includes other genres such as children’s books and fashion illustrations. “My thesis back in Fine Arts School focused on gender and sexuality,” Tokwa shares. “I want to explore male sensuality through my art.” Tokwa talks of vulnerability and relationship in explaining his work, all inspired by human experiences of longing and love as expressed in the male homosexual bond.
“Our works are all about sex positivity,” Tokwa points out. Kay’s female nudes and Tokwa’s homoerotic images reveal intimate corners that society would otherwise relegate to more hidden and discreet spaces. “The shock and exposure that our art can give is something that should educate the wider public. If we keep on shunning away sex in our regular conversations, it wouldn’t help educating people about HIV/AIDS,” says Kay.
Both Kay and Tokwa admit their art was not intended for HIV awareness, but that people’s response to their work had naturally grown to accommodate that angle. “I want people to interpret my work in the light of HIV awareness. I don’t want to spoon-feed them,” says Tokwa. To them, it is not about drawing syringes and images of dying people: “To educate people about HIV/AIDS, I think we should be more sex-positive,” Kay says.
Rather than fearing sex uncritically, society must be able to recognize the fundamental place of sex in human life. At one level, we deal with accepting sex as a fundamental reality of human existence that it helps to actually be more open about it. And on another level, we deal with accepting PLHIVs by emphasizing that their experiences and struggles in life are much closer to normal. “Our art draws from the intersection of personal experience, sexuality, and the body. It is something that we all have and do,” says Tokwa.
Works for The Red Letter Days: “Penitensya” and “Pectin and Sugar and How to Make Homemade Jams”
"Penitensya" by Kaye Aranzanso
Kay Aranzanso’s “Penitensya” delves into the politics of sex. Here, the woman is on “top”; she is in control, the rhythm imposed by her sexual position, a tool of dominance. Pleasure is her power: power to pleasure her partner and, at the same time, to pleasure herself. Relating this to HIV/AIDS, the figure of a woman on top implies a position of dominance, her being in a position of authority gives her the freedom to use protection or otherwise during sexual intercourse. Relating Kay’s slant on women figures, it is important to remember that the HIV/AIDS crisis, which is often associated with homosexual men, disproportionately affect women. In 2015 for example, 58% of new infections in young people aged 15-24 years old occurred among teenage girls and young women, according to the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women.
"Pectin and Sugar and How To Make Homemade Jams" by Tokwa Peñaflorida
“I started out by thinking of a story with a very personal approach,” explains Tokwa in his piece, “Pectin and Sugar and How To Make Homemade Jams.” The image of two men superimposed with colored blobs and a bunch of fruits is an allusion to a homosexual relationship that has become too comfortable or complacent, both lovers bound by the stickiness of the jam, as it were. The fruit jam is the bright and dense sweetness of their relationship made manifest, but its restrictive viscosity underscores the dangers of their relationship’s complacency. Relating this story to HIV/AIDS, the complacency Tokwa describes in this piece alludes to the complacency of both lovers to find out their status. In fact, studies have documented a disturbing habit common among gay men of not revealing their HIV status to their partners, out of a need for self-protection and fear of rejection -- a sobering reminder of stigma’s power within the gay community.
Exhibiting art for the cause of HIV
“One goal you should have with your art exhibit is to have a wider reach,” says Henri Palma. Apart from maximizing reach, the exhibit must ensure that its collection gets the message across while maintaining artistic standards in choosing works to be included in the collection.
Henri points to the unpreparedness of the general public in appreciating art. “Art has always had the perception of being elitist. Museums seem to be intimidating venues.” Henri’s exhibits often take place in malls, which are more accessible. Instead of putting up barriers, his exhibits, such as those organized by the corporate foundation where he works, make art more accessible to people.
The art being exhibited is, of course, the heart of any successful exhibit. However, the criteria for choosing what gets in are considerably arbitrary. Principles of formalism can be applied, and this includes an analysis of the form and style of the work, the method for creating the work and purely visual aspects. We see the facility with which Kay and Tokwa create the image of the male and female forms, the complex composition and use of color in Tokwa’s work. The work is evaluated according to various aspects including space, volume, and general aesthetic elements.
On the other hand, the sociocultural and historical context where the work is anchored on introduces a level of relativism. This is where the narratives of each work are considered, one of sexual politics and human experience in the works of our two featured artists. In the context of an HIV/AIDS exhibit, the depth and wealth of meaning it bears with the crisis must be weighed together with theories used for evaluating visual art. Some artists may not have the intention of creating work with HIV/AIDS in mind, but it is highly possible to read these works in the light of HIV/AIDS discourse, as described in the stories of the works of Kay and Tokwa.
“I would not include a still life painting of a syringe, for example,” muses Henri when asked about what kind of images he would want in an exhibit with PLHIVs as the theme. While a painting may be created with great technical skill, the message and narrative it contains may not just have enough relevance to the theme of the exhibit. Discernment on the part of the exhibitor and curator is vital to the collection’s success.
Henri cites Visual AIDS, the only organization that supports solely HIV-related art. Its projects aim to encourage dialogue and scholarship on HIV/AIDS, and supports PLHIV artists in exhibiting their work. Apart from exhibitions, Visual AIDS utilizes art as a catalyst for public presentations about HIV, activism, and social activism. Speakers would explain about various realities of the HIV crisis and PLHIVs’ experiences while keeping the artwork as the focal point of the discussion.
The experiences of those who live with HIV and the larger stories that loom over our collective imaginations are dynamic, and art is well-suited to the task of rendering this complexity into tangible forms. And while art draws from and draws out complexity, artists like Henri, Tokwa, and Kay show that creativity can be anchored on an unchanging virtue: acceptance. Art inspired by the stories of people so often shut out is one way of teaching acceptance, of reaching out by drawing people in.