“It’s an homage to the people who undertook to raise the issue of HIV/AIDS in my country,” he tells SFR via an interpreter.
His piece is surrounded by small shelves with hollowed-out holes for people to place their own signs, provided by the museum. Miniature banners emblazoned with messages like “AIDS affects everyone” and “Wrap it before you tap it” quickly started popping up last Sunday afternoon during the opening of Let’s Talk About This: Folk Artists Respond to HIV/AIDS.
“It’s as if you were part of a parade—just like the one displayed in my artwork,” Jethá says.
According to gallery director Suzanne Seriff, that hands-on element, present through the “exhibition-in-process,” was key. One DIY station encourages folks to fashion pieces for an in-house AIDS quilt, while another hosts fill-in coroner-style tags meant as tributes to friends and family members suffering from the affliction.
“We decided to embark on an exhibit development process that was all about dialogue,” Seriff says. “It was very different. It wasn’t professionally curated, and it wasn’t professionally designed.”
The project developed organically over the last eight months. “Stuff was taped on the walls,” the director says. “Some longtime art patrons came in and thought it was the ugliest thing they’d ever seen, but most people came in and said, ‘I feel like my voice is being heard’; ‘This is a brave thing to do’; and ‘Thank you for giving me a chance to say my opinion.’”
The decision to shine an artistic light on both the epidemic and ways to prevent it, Seriff says, fits perfectly with the Gallery of Consciousness’ mission to “engage and connect communities around social justice and human rights issues.”
She considers folk art’s role in spreading awareness to be a natural fit. “People can listen to a form that they understand—and that’s what folk art is. It’s a form that is of the people, by the people, for the people.”
Burqueño Andrew Montoya agrees. He stumbled onto the subject for “Blessed Mother of the Incarnation” by chance. It turns out, she’s the Patron Saint of Hepatitis.
“Hepatitis, of course, has some connection to HIV/AIDS,” Montoya, a nurse by profession, says. “After researching her for a while, I ended up saying, ‘You know what, do I do the image and put it out there, or should I be more conservative and not make anyone mad?’”
He went with the former. The potential backlash for equating a religious icon with the disease never came. Instead, he says, he’s received commissions from New Mexicans whose lives have been personally affected by the epidemic.
Diana Moya Lujan’s “La Curación del Corazón” (“The Healing of the Heart”) also mixes traditional with contemporary. “I wanted to be able to create something that showed sensitivity to HIV, and I thought, ‘What’s more important than showing a heart and then the ribbon that symbolized the caring that people have?’”
Moya Lujan laced the heart with straw appliqué roses “because I am a very devout Catholic and I show a lot of reverence and devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe.” She also incorporates an army of small hearts “to show that we really need to be heart-strong through this, and that we really need to heal as a culture—not just in a physical sense, but mentally.”
She too hopes the exhibit bridges cultural gaps in dealing with the taboo subject. “My piece, for example—a child can look at it and they see a heart and a ribbon, and yet an older person can look at it and see something totally different,” she says. “In art, there is no discrimination. It’s something that people appreciate.”
Several panels, discussions and special programs are scheduled throughout Folk Arts Week and through the exhibit’s January 2014 closing date. Its effects on people, Jethá hopes, will last well beyond that.
“It is not necessary to wait ’til December to bring light to this issue,” he says. “Hopefully, with my piece, people can talk about it all year long.”
Museum of International Folk Art,
706 Camino Lejo, 476-1200
Through Jan. 5, 2014