“A wonderful artist and activist, Kia Benbow is not shy about being a young positive woman living with HIV,” says Sero Project’s Reed Vreeland. “Her energy and activism shines a light on those around her.”
Benbow (a.k.a. Kia Labeija) has been HIV-positive for 25 years; she was born with the virus.
“I lost my mom when I was 14,” Benbow told audiences at (Re)Presenting AIDS: Culture and Accountability, a 2013 forum in New York created by Visual AIDS, the Pop Up Museum of Queer History, and the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies. “And since then I have been trying to piece together how to help the younger generation deal with this.”
The artist felt that children born to poz parents weren’t given much visibility and their issues were rarely explored. “I think that is a big issue,” she said. “A lot of us born to positive parents, we lose our parents, and we lose that kind of guidance of how we relate to the world, being positive, being young, being sexual, being all these kinds of things.”
Benbow, who cofounded the artists’ collective #GenAIDS to utilize art to connect with the younger generation and popular culture, wants to see an artistic revival in which the reflection of HIV and AIDS is not about fear and death (present in much good AIDS art in the 1980s and ’90s) but celebration of life. Her work reminds us that HIV and AIDS aren’t over, but neither are the people living with the virus. For young people like her, HIV isn’t “sad,” it’s merely a part of their lives, tied up with feelings about youth and vitality and sexuality in a way we’ve never really seen expressed before.
Today, the multidisciplinary artist, an alumna of the Juilliard School and the Ailey School, works in photography, performance, and installation and is a member of the Iconic House of Labeija, “a platform in which she uses to continue her love of the intersections of performance, fantasy, nightlife, and community,” according to her website.
And the messages from #GenAIDS are fast becoming pop artifacts of modern perspectives on HIV and AIDS, including tees that read, “AIDS isn’t racist. But you are.”