AIDS ACTION NOW: FUCK POSITIVE WOMEN – Allyson Mitchell, Jessica Whitbread & Alex McClelland

It is 30 years into the AIDS epidemic, and we are still struggling. New forms of AIDS-phobia, discrimination, and inequality continue to emerge, including the increasing criminalization of people living with HIV. In Canada, the climate of fear and austerity are increasing health inequalities for us all. It is clear that now, more than ever, activism and art are needed to reinvigorate the response to HIV and AIDS.

This year, AIDS ACTION NOW worked to create a different kind of dialogue around HIV, in the art world and on the street, in ways that haven’t happened for a long time.

In honor of the Day With(out) Art 2011, AIDS ACTION NOW launched a poster series created by local Toronto artists Allyson Mitchell, Kent Monkman, John Greyson, Daryl Vocat, Cecilia Berkovic, and Mikiki with Scott Donald. The posters were developed collectively with community members working to respond to HIV. By merging the worlds of art and activism, we are intentionally evoking the history of creative responses to HIV. The posters were plastered across Toronto during the weeks leading up to December 1, 2011. Our aim is to provoke discussion, controversy, and dialogue in a way that traditional activism cannot.

In the following excerpt, Allyson Mitchell discusses her collaborative FUCK POSITIVE WOMEN poster, made with Jessica Whitbread of the International Community of Women Living with HIV (ICW).

Allyson Mitchell:

When Jessica and I first met to think about this project, we considered the kinds of representations of positive women that were are very familiar, with HIV-positive women as mothers, as victims, as not from or living here in this place.

We talked about the sentiment of sex negativity that is put upon positive women and decided that we wanted something different. We wanted our poster to ask:

Why aren’t women allowed to be subjects of their sexuality rather than objects?
Why aren’t HIV-positive women allowed to talk about sex as freely as gay men?
Why can’t we express an urgent, horny, powerful, and open message about positive women and sexuality?

When I look around and see the narrow options of chastity, Pussycat Dollery or Toddlers in Tiaras kinds of sexuality for women and girls, it seems like we have nothing to lose. We might as well try for some new kinds of iconography.

So the message of FUCK POSITIVE WOMEN is a directive – a confident and supportive message meant to relocate positive sexual energy around the bodies of HIV-positive women. When I say women, I am of course including trans and gender queer women: ALL self-identified women.

FUCK POSITIVE WOMEN can also be read as a declarative for its double meaning about how HIV-positive women are fucked when it comes to awareness, visibility, options, policy, and support on the large part. Making this kind of a rude point hopefully contributes to some of the ways that HIV-positive women can get un-fucked by healthcare, government policies, and awareness campaigns.

This messaging is part of a community. HIV-positive women were involved with the messaging for this poster. The International Community of Women Living with HIV (ICW) – an international network of positive women – was presented this slogan and they said, “yes, do it; we give you our permission.”

Jessica and I also worked together on thinking through the design of the poster. It was intentional to make the poster an image of a cross stitch – firmly planting the aesthetic within domestic, feminized, working class, grammy craft. John Greyson encouraged us to reveal the process of the craft so that you see the unfinished plastic canvas and the yarn… maintaining the implications of needles and penetration.

In a conversation I had with Jessica around the nervousness expressed by some about the message of our poster and the concern that people may think it was made by haters she said: “If neo-nazis start making their hate literature using plastic cross stitch, then the world may have half a chance to be a better place.”

So FUCK POSITIVE WOMEN. As the International Community of Women living with HIV say, “This is the kind of messaging we wanted to have. Messaging that makes a debate, makes a conversation, elicits a response that isn’t apathetic or complacent.”

Watch the video of Allyson Mitchell’s presentation here.

To view the other posters check out the POSTER/virus blog here:

By Kent Monkman

By Cecilia Berkovic

By MIKIKI with Scott Donald

By Daryl Vocat

By John Greyson

Allyson Mitchell is a maximalist artist working predominantly in sculpture, installation and film. Since 1997, Mitchell has been melding feminism and pop culture to play with contemporary ideas about sexuality, autobiography, and the body, largely through the use of reclaimed textile and abandoned craft. Her work has exhibited in galleries and festivals across Canada, the US, Europe and East Asia. She has also performed extensively with Pretty Porky and Pissed Off, a fat performance troupe, as well as publishing both writing and music. She is an assistant Professor in the School of Women’s Studies at York University.

Jessica Whitbread. As a woman living with HIV, Jessica’s passion lies with her community, leading her to work extensively in the area of HIV at a grassroots level doing advocacy and program development. She is the North American Representative on the International Steering Committee for the International Community of Women Living with HIV/AIDS and works at ACT in Toronto. She is obsessed with “tea parties” and using them as a tool for social change.

Alex McClelland is an advocate, educator, community organizer and researcher. Since his HIV-positive diagnosis in 1998, Alex has been involved in many Canadian and international civil society organizations working toward addressing the social drivers of the HIV epidemic including stigma, discrimination, poverty, and other forms of inequality. Alex strongly believes in the principle of ‘nothing about us, without us’, which calls for the rights of peoples to be involved in decision-making that affects their lives.