By Shan Kelley
I’m an Edmonton born artist and health policy advocate. I moved to Montreal in 2005 where I would eventually enroll in University. I hit a wall when I came home for the summer in 2009, expecting to pay a visit to my family and celebrate my mother’s birthday. Instead, I was an emaciated, deathly sick version of self, and it was finally diagnosed that I had been HIV+ for some time and my body was giving up. It was a surreal and difficult time to say the least. After thinking of ways to kill myself along the drive back from the clinic, I arrived again at the doorway to my parents’ home to collapse into an infant like regression. In the days which followed, I was swaddled and spoon fed by my mother while my father fought tears between silent prayers and meditation. I’d been comforted, loved and cared for but shared my burden reluctantly.
My body fought back against the antiretroviral regime as the medicine took a torturous two months to become even remotely tolerable. In the hands of all the privilege ofparental and medical care, I rebuilt my body over the course of the summer. I spoke to no one outside my circle of care. All the friends I had, imagined I had escaped to Mexico – I found myself unable to reach out to even them. As the new semester approached, I recognized the irony at having unknowingly enrolled in an interdisciplinary course stream that offered: “HIV/AIDS Aspects of the Pandemic” as a study subject. When I returned to university that fall, I went back to learn about the deep history of what I had just been diagnosed with.
I had repaired my body, but was in emotional shambles and thus, began to study HIV with intensity. I immersed myself into everything I could get my hands on but I was still shell-shocked, coming to terms with + status and was nowhere near being publicly “out”. I interned at an AIDS Service Organization during this time. The fact that I didn’t feel safe to disclose my positive status to even them, speaks volumes to what a prison stigma can be. I remember being afraid to be seen reading POZ, or picking up pamphlets, and I would read them in secret, and at my home before recycling them immediately, discretely. I recall even then, how brave, and courageous I imagined it must be to tell others about being positive, to be able to rise above the disease, to own an identity that is proud and beyond positive and strong. It seems tragically comical to me now of course, in hindsight, that I started an internship at ACCM (AIDS Community Care Montreal) without telling co-workers about being poz. Imagine that – the absolute safest place, where I could disclose freely and yet I was still reluctant to accept this reflection of my reality. Inspired by disclosure workshops, and public speaking, I eventually came out and then signed on as a staff member for some time. When I finally did reveal my sero-status, it was because I had finally fully accepted it and was growing restless and incredibly political about identifying, as a means of activism and beyond.
I’ve been a painter, but would never call what I did painterly. I took photos but would never call myself a photographer. I went to an arts school but was more interested in skateboarding. Even in University, as I worked my way through my fine arts degree, I became more interested in health policy, and social epidemiology. Art has always appealed to me but I never imagined that I would pursue it. Art and AIDS make good bedfellows, I suppose. The history of the AIDS activist movement, by that I mean the manner in which disparate groups of people united, organized, mobilized, fought for, and demanded action on AIDS, is the pre-eminent and precedent roadmap for the way most activism for social change today takes place and art was a big part of popularizing the messaging. A certain snapshot of geography in the AIDS movement gained traction from prolific artists who were already established and held a certain voice, and for certain these artists were using their savvy language of art to communicate, denunciate, and speak to the complexities of living in a period of AIDS crisis. Though the crisis is much different now, I would argue that that crisis never disappeared but rather, changed with the times. AIDS is still here, and it’s still very much a crisis. One such mobilization resulted in the creation of an organization called Visual AIDS, which formed in 1988 as a means of recording the impact of the AIDS pandemic on the artistic community. Visual AIDS has marked Dec. 1 as Day With(out) Art, in which thousands of arts institutions and organizations around the world unify together to demonstrate the power of art, to raise awareness of the ongoing AIDS pandemic. In 1991, the Visual AIDS Artist Caucus created the now ubiquitous symbol of the red ribbon. Nearly three decades later, the Visual AIDS Archive Project continues to steward the largest database, archive, and slide collection of art works created by those living with HIV and those who have died from AIDS related causes.
Writing recently about my work, Ted Kerr said elegantly that it is “focused on concerns associated with HIV: vulnerability, traceability, sexuality, location, and the limits of the physical and social body”. I endeavor to blur the line between activism and art, and I hope it provokes a dialogue and raises questions. For certain, my HIV+ diagnosis has become a catalyst to art making as a means of instigation and agitation but it’s more present at some times than at others. I’m interested in working towards a shift in culture where health, human rights, and dignity are focal points of social change. I’ve been inspired to find my own voice within the context of disease and adversity and to push forward using art as action against apathy or surrender. I appreciate language and the idea of using text as material. Most of my work begins there.
If you are inspired by my story – Stand together. Take action. Fight back.
Shan Kelley – Clean, Fit, and Decease Free
December 4 – January 16 at Latitude 53
Opening Reception: Friday, December 4 at 7:00 pm, members and guests invited