Exclusive Interview with Inspiring HIV Artist/Activist Jessica Lynn Whitbread

Exclusive Interview with Inspiring HIV Artist/Activist Jessica Lynn Whitbread 2017-08-14T11:54:18+00:00

“Go With Your Gut and Make Stuff Happen Because Life is Short”

by Emili Ema Sedlar When opening up a dialogue about HIV/AIDS, it is essential to recognize how there have always been so many influential and inspirational activists throughout history who have shown up in solidarity with others. They have found different approaches of sending unique messages of why we need to know more about HIV/AIDS. Many activists have decided to share their own intimate stories, documenting their lives with others, sharing the voices of many that have had their own story to share. Some of these activists are artists and many of them today have created numerous gripping and moving pieces that reflect the lives of people living with HIV in many different ways. One of these artists is Jessica Lynn Whitbread, who shared with me her own intimate story of how she has throughout the years been inspired and moved by so many women who are living with HIV. She decided to reflect her and their stories through particular creative art projects. Jessica is a groundbreaking artist: She illustrates from different perspectives, different voices of people living with HIV, throughout specific projects. She never leaves out a topic to be vague, but rather, she discovers more and more of what is hidden inside the stigma of HIV, and she presents her work with an open heart and for the public to discover more on the unsettling issues surrounding HIV/AIDS.
  • Looking at your CV, I noticed how you have an extremely rich background in which you have done a lot of work focusing on women and HIV. However, I am curious, what exactly inspired you to focus on women and HIV?  
Well, that’s an easy one. I tested positive when I was 21 and as a young, queer woman living with HIV, had difficulties finding community. My work with women and HIV starting out was quite self serving, but has grown outwards from there.
  • What have you learned most from the women you’ve collaborated with?
What haven’t I leaned?! I think that this question is quite a big one to tackle. Maybe I have learned that for many, being HIV positive is just a small part of who they are but, unfortunately, takes up a lot of space.
  • Have you ever received inspirational comments from your audience about your work? I have to admit, your work really is uplifting and different, in such a way that you draw special attention to emotions and HIV, family background and experience.
Awwwww, that is really nice to hear. See, I just heard one! In 2016, I was humbled by winning the Visual AIDS Vandaurd Award. My dear friend, Kia Labejia, presented me with the award and did an interview about it. I basically cried from beginning to end. But please, wouldn’t you, if someone was asked to sum you up in one sentence and said: “She who smiles with the strength of a thousand warrior women.” Kia and I actually first met though my Tea Time piece. I was the first cisgender woman living with HIV besides her mother whom she had met. She remains very special to me, as do many of the women that I met through that (and every other) project I have done. 20814837_10211535469916639_162859667_n
  • One of your famous works is Tea Time, which was your master thesis that focused on women opening up about their HIV status and their stories. In which way did you come up with this kind of project, which is I have to admit, is very cathartic and inspiring.
Famous….you’re so flattering. My dream was to do a road trip to small towns and have tea with women living with HIV who might be isolated to connect them to a broader network and basically let them know that there are many of us, and that others care. I don’t drive though, so the whole road trip piece wasn’t really going to work. But traveling with the teacups and letters has! To date I have had tea parties across Canada, the United States, Australia, Netherlands, Kenya and Jamaica.
  • 64 women participated in the Tea Time. For you, what was it like once you had gathered different stories and experiences from women living with HIV?
Well, it’s more now. Something like 90, I think. It’s an ongoing process that continues to blow my mind and humble me.
  • After you published Tea Time: Mapping Informal Networks of Women Living with HIV, were there many women that reached out to you and shared their own stories? What was that like?
Yes! And lots of loved ones as well telling me about their sister or parent. But most of all, lots of women talking about their feelings of not being connected and isolated. Love Positive Women is another project that I started to show those women that they are amazing and special and LOVED! 
  • In the beginning of your book, you mention how it is important to you to educate many of those who are ignorant. How successful was that for you (through your art) and in which way should the audience share your message?
It’s hard to measure success. I know that some folks have shifted their thoughts around things. Art is amazing that way. I think art has the ability to touch people in different and often personal ways. In regards to Tea Time, I don’t know if there is actually a message, but it’s more about intimacy and connections. I mean, the women share their messages in the letters and to each other. Tea Time is more about creating a platform for their messages to be heard. Even more than that, it is documentation of the existence of these amazing women. Since the book was published, three of the women have passed away. I think of the book as a way of documenting their being a part of a really special and loving community.
  • The message of Love Positive Women to me is beautiful and memorable. How successful was the project? What kind of feedback did you receive?
Thanks! LPW is so inspiring to me as well. I cry at least once every season because of an amazing and totally heart-warming project that someone does for the LPW holidays. One of the most notable times was when I hand stitched a banner that said «Любите Позитивне Женщин» which means Love Positive Women in Russian in 2015. For this LPW piece, I took this banner everywhere for about a month and had everyone and anyone pose for a photo with it – from taxi drivers to travel agents to other women living with HIV – I even got a reggae band to pose with it after their show in Jamaica. After posting these on the LPW page for about five days into LPW (it’s every year from Feb 1 -14th) a group in Ukraine posted a photo of a copy banner they quilted together. I cried and cried. It was so beautiful. Then there were more and more from women and their communities in eastern Europe and Central Asia. Talking to some of the women afterwards they commented how meaningful it was to see people from all over the world, holding a message in a language that they could understand. After doing years of work globally, it’s so disappointing how little the world does to support the increasing HIV and Hep C situation in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. For the past three years, LPW continues to grow, interconnecting women in Eastern Europe and Central Asia to each other and communities around the world. Oh and I cannot talk about amazing projects without giving honorable mentions to the Visual AIDS, Fire Island Artist Residency, and Dieu Donne paper making mail-out that has sent about 1000 cards globally in the last 3 years (plus started having fancy NYC art shows of the cards to celebrate for the past two years); the numerous cards making parties and quilting sessions by the women from the Jamaican Community of Positive Women which are sent to other groups of women living with HIV all over the Caribbean; or the time that I got a message to say that a group was surprising women living with HIV in prisons by bringing their children to visit for LPW in Malaysia. Elephant tears I tell you! LPW is for everyone and I highly encourage everyone to participate. It feels hard to measure success, but I did count in 2016 and there were over 110 projects done globally. So, I guess that is pretty cool. 20839473_10211535477676833_2099696029_n
  • I’d like to mention two important works that highlight vital issues surrounding with HIV. One is the Space Dates, in which you focus on the message of HIV criminalization and safer sex, and the other is No pants, No Problem. In Space Dates, the audience is able to see space suits, a kind of an emotional metaphor of people living with HIV- the fear of social and sexual contact because of the stigma that is brought on from society. Can you please describe to me the dialogue you have had with people living with HIV? In which ways have they expressed their worries of the stigma that brought you to this magnificent project?
20839264_10211535498917364_1348097706_n

photo credit: Tania Anderson

Space Date was so super fun to do! I love my collaborator Morgan M. Page! So the piece was originally a performance at the Art Gallery of Ontario where we as two queer women went on a date, but before we did we put on spacesuits. And let me tell you making out in spacesuits is quite fun. But having public health shoved down your throat that queer women and trans men need to wrap your body in latex before the get down is less fun because it perpetuates false assumptions about risk and HIV. I mean I have sex with many different kinds of bodies and while queer women are told to use gloves and dams – this is definitely not the rhetoric for any kind of hetero sex I might be having. Cisgender men are definitely not told to use anything but a condom in regards to STIs let alone HIV. So Space Dates was about creating a dialogue. The performance was created to support a poster made by Morgan M. Page and Onya Hogan for another project I co-curate called Poster Virus. Their poster was based on something I said on a date with a woman – “I don’t need to wear a spacesuit to fuck you.”
  • No Pants, No Problem is a project statement, in which it’s focus topic is on body criminalization and sexual privilege. It deals with emancipating one’s body from fear of stigmas and name-calling. Do you perhaps know, from all of the people you’ve come across how many of them you have helped ’emancipate’ themselves from their fears of HIV?
3098 to be exact. Just kidding, I have no idea. But I have read some interesting articles about NPNP and hear second hand from others. Sometimes NPNP feels like a utopia, other times I do realize that it doesn’t always feel that good for everyone depending on where you are at and if you talk to a bit of an ass who is still in their process of learning. But what NPNP tries to do is create a space for even just a few hours where gender, sexual orientation and HIV status don’t matter. In addition, there is a policy that no one gets turned away due to lack of funds. In many cases now for the International AIDS Conferences, people pre-order tickets and buy one to give to a random person who might be from another country and cannot afford it. It’s really beautiful.
  • Today, there are many artists that focus on necessary topics such as this. What is your advice to them?
I guess just do what feels good to you. Go with your gut and make stuff happen because life is short. When I was first diagnosed with HIV, it was January 4, 2002 (amazing Christmas of waiting as you can imagine). So everyone was thinking about New Year resolutions. The one that I made was “anything in life that I want to do, I’m going to do it.” I continue to live by this statement 15 plus years later and it’s reflected in my art practice.  
  • What are your future projects?
Raising two awesome kids. I had twins last year. For this project I am going inside and working on this more private piece. Interview me again in 20 years and I’ll tell you if it was successful. Also remember that LPW happens every year. NPNP will be happening in Amsterdam for the 2018 AIDS Conference. And if you want to participate in Tea Time – let’s see how this can maybe happen (recently I’ve been very keen on being more active in this regard).