Think about an HIV-positive person, what comes to your mind? Probably, your first thought is a gay, white man. Although they were and continue to be a highly affected collective, many narratives are usually left out. Kia LaBeija presents her own experience in Prepare My Heart, an autobiographical photography and artwork solo show exploring “grief, love, beauty, stigma, identity, being a queer woman of colour, and balancing distinct cultural legacies of being a Black woman and an Asian woman,” as she states. This is the most complex view of the interdisciplinary artist’s life and practice to date. And it’s truly inspired by how her mother, a beloved community leader for parents and children living with HIV, prepared her for her inevitable death, but she also prepared her for life. This intimate exhibition, almost as if it were a personal diary, is on view until May 8 at the Fotografiska Museum, New York.
LaBeija’s mother, Kwan Bennet, was an AIDS activist and migrant from the Philippines who died due to AIDS-related causes when LaBeija was just 14 years old. One day, she was in her bedroom thinking about her when she looked at a drawing of hers. When she went to hang it up correctly, she found one of the many letters her mum had left for her: “Kia, my love, I will always be there for you when you need me. Call on me,” it read. As you can see with just a few words, their strong and caring relationship became crucial to LaBeija’s way of seeing life, especially when it comes to growing up as an HIV-positive Black and Asian woman. The show, curated by Meredith Breech, features new artwork as well as three decades of archival images, ephemera, poetry, video, and self-portraiture.

Although LaBeija is no longer active in New York’s Ballroom scene, she previously became the Overall Mother of the Iconic House of LaBeija in its 50th year. And, of course, her deep involvement in the house for all those years shaped her identity as a queer woman. And it also led her to be one of the principal dancers in the acclaimed series Pose. “I think the fantasy and romanticism of ballroom can cause people to get lost in it. There are two sides to everything, and I’ve definitely seen both sides,” she said. All in all, the exhibition portrays the duality of her life: the beauty and strength of dance, dealing with her mother’s death as a teenager, the glamour of Ballroom’s makeup and fashion, the difficulty of dating as an HIV-positive person but also the profound love she has found.

To give you a deeper insight, the artist references a frequent phrase she’s had to hear during her dating life seen in neon: “I risked my life for you,” resting on her chest. In contrast, she presents a photograph of two naked bodies hugging each other while the sentence “she knows and she loves me even more” is projected on their skin – a clear reference to LaBeija’s partner. Also, some pictures exemplify the feeling of intense mourning sickness as a side effect of the medication, hospital visits or prayers. And without a doubt, LaBeija’s journey to self-love.

Fighting against prejudice, Prepare My Heart reframes the AIDS narrative into a deeper and more expansive understanding, serving also as a way to make more people feel represented. This is your opportunity to immerse yourself into a delicately curated story that ties all these pieces together. You can get your tickets here.
Prepare My Heart is on view at the Fotografiska Museum of New York until May 8. 281 Park Ave S, New York, NY 10010, USA.
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