I first learned of the AIDS epidemic when I was in the 5th grade. This was the age where all students received some type of sex education. Girls learned about their periods and boys learned the meaning behind wet dreams. At the time, there were plenty of giggles and laughs as we learned about the sensitive subject.

We squirmed in our seats as we looked at graphic images of STD’s such as herpes, gonorrhea, and chlamydia. However, once the teacher assured us of cures and treatments, it didn’t seem like it was deadly.

However, we weren’t feeling as invincible once we learned the reality of AIDS.

A Walk Through Art AIDS America

I would revisit the topic again briefly in a high school health class. However, it wasn’t until my trip to the Art AIDS America exhibit at the Alphawood Gallery that I got a glimpse of the disease and how it affected the lives of many.

This wasn’t your art gallery where you could peruse and take selfies in front of gorgeous works of art. Some works were beautiful like an ornate beaded painting. And some could make the viewer uncomfortable such as the skeletal portrait of an AIDS patient

One work by artist Tony Fehrer featured a row of pennies that symbolized how many years the artist lived after his 1995 AIDS diagnosis. Each year, Tony would mail a penny to the Art Institute of Chicago to add to the piece. Optimistically, he left room for 96 pennies but died mid-2016 at the age of 60.


Another work was by the iconic 80’s artist Keith Haring. He died from AIDS in 1990. Keith’s self-portrait created just two years before his death features references to the diminishing T-Cells and a sand dial that is running out. Other symbols aren’t so obvious, but the message is nevertheless clear.

Throughout the various works of art of, the harsh reality of AIDS became very real for the viewer. For the first time, we can artistically see the effects of the disease but also get a glimpse into how those affected by AIDS felt. They told their story through art and we the viewer are just there to listen.

Dismantling Misconceptions

Art AIDS in America also seeks to dismantle common misconceptions about AIDS. For one, we no longer look at the disease as one that only affects gay men. The exhibit featured the stories of individuals from all walks of life spanning race and gender.

Artist Kia Lebeija was born with AIDS and had a photograph that captured her youthful essence while living with the disease. She’s dressed in a voluminous red prom dress while sitting in the confines of a hospital room.

Safe Haven

The experience that one goes through in Art AIDS America is one that is typically not present in other art galleries. This is reiterated by the fact that not only does the gallery house stories of those affected by the disease, but it also serves as a safe haven for all.

Guests could share their memories of loved ones lost to the disease on a chalk board column.  The quote “I still loved him” was scribbled on the wall and immediately caught my eye. There were countless messages that pulled the viewer even further into the narrative.  As I scrolled past all the messages it was clear that there was a sense of unconditional love.

A more artistic approach allowed guests to add a ribbon to an installation. Each colorful ribbon served as a representation of those lost to the disase.

On select days, guests could also create a quilt in memory of a friend or loved one. On the top floor of the exhibit, the famous AIDS quilt sprawls across a big chunk of the gallery space. The quilt has a new panel added to it everyday which serves as powerful reminder that the fight against AIDS is still on.

The colorful etchings of chalk, ribbons and multi-color quilts were beautiful works of art. However, what you witness is beyond the artistic realm.

I experienced more than a gallery but also a safe haven for healing, discussion through art.

Stories with Bill T. Jones

However, one experience that particularly resonated with me was the poignant performance by legendary choreographer Bill T. Jones. Bill T. Jones has been decorated with many awards and accolades in his career. He will easily go down as one of the greatest and most revolutionary choreographers of our time. For one evening the audience would get rare access to the world renown choreographer as he shared intimate moments, videos, and photographs during his time with his partner Arnie Zane.

The evening opened with a rare video of Bill T. Jones receiving body paint by the iconic Keith Haring. We were able to witness rare footage of two icons simply enjoying their craft.

In addition to photos and video, Bill would provide the audience with a rare glimpse into the last days of his partner Arnie Zane.

Through Bill’s touching performance the audience got to know Arnie as someone who possessed humor and grace and not just another face of AIDS. Bill’s reading was so detailed it felt as if the audience was also at the bedside of Arnie experiencing his last moments.

It was a unique occasion for Bill T. Jones who not only rarely visits Chicago, but he often doesn’t tell the story of Arnie. For one night, the audience was able to share a special moment with Bill and it was an experience that I’m sure we’ll always remember.

Final Thoughts

For the first time, I went beyond my history books and what I learned in health class and I was confronted with the faces and stories of AIDS through Art AIDS  America.

As I reflect, I don’t think anything could have prepared me for all that I saw at Art AIDS America so I’m purposely keeping this post very vague so you can go and experience the exhibit for yourself.

When you go, go with an open mind and heart and just to listen. A different story is told through each work of art and it is up to you to get the most out of this experience.

I’m thankful for that day of perusing Art AIDS America and it really has given me a new perspective on life.  While HIV infection rates are declining and we have more access to better medicines and treatments, AIDS is still very much alive and well.

Be sure to get your free HIV testing at the exhibit. The exhibit is going on now till April 2nd. You can find out more information about the exhibit and their events at ArtAIDSAmericaChicago.org

*Bill T. Jones photo credit by Dan Rest