The Positive Side

Fall/Winter 2006 

The Art of Being Positive

CATIE was the proud creator of a national series of exhibits of art by people living with HIV/AIDS. Entitled art posi+ive, it culminated in a show that coincided with AIDS 2006. Here we talk to some participants and look to the future of the event.

By RonniLyn Pustil


IN JULY 2005, CATIE, launched art posi+ive as an opportunity to celebrate the lives and creativity of HIV-positive Canadians and to allow them to share their personal artistic expressions of living with the virus. Created in partnership with pharmaceutical company Gilead Sciences Canada, art posi+ive consisted of four installations throughout the year across Canada. More than 40 artists living with HIV responded to three “calls for inspiration.”

The culmination of this year-long initiative was an event at AIDS 2006. As an official component of the conference’s Cultural Program, CATIE hosted a special art posi+ive exhibit at a downtown Toronto gallery to showcase the talents of 14 HIV-positive Canadians. On display were more than 30 pieces of artwork by artists from across the country, each of whom offered a unique take on what it’s like to live with HIV.

The Toronto show kicked off with an opening gala for members of the HIV community and remained open for the duration of the conference to all delegates and the broader public. With the end of the initial project we were determined that the idea live on. And it will: Every issue of The Positive Side will feature a new department called — what else? — “art posi+ive,” in which we will feature the work of talented Canadian artists living with HIV/AIDS.


Visual communications and marketing, Photographer, Toronto
Diagnosed with HIV in 1990
Untitled No. 12, from the series “Meditations on Mortality,” 2004
22" x 30", pencil on collaged and altered digital photo print

The “Meditations on Mortality” series is based on police lineup–style portrait studies of friends (as well as self-portraits) mixed together digitally and by hand, torn, collaged, reassembled, sanded-down, drawn over. It reads like a diary, a graphic stream-of-consciousness narrative about the struggle around self-esteem and self-love. This work cannot be divorced from the struggles I’ve had coming to terms with my changing body and my finite self. As a gay man, I struggle to compare my own reflected image and desires with standard notions of beauty and the relationship between the surface and what lies beneath. The urge to do these investigations seemed to build as my body and face reflected outwardly the damage and complications of first-generation antiretroviral therapy.

One of the paradoxes of living is that we simultaneously want to be individuals and also feel part of a larger community. Everyone who struggles with HIV has to continually fight against the urge to shy away. The art posi+ive exhibit offered the opportunity to share and come together, to resist the urge to see ourselves as islands. Isolation can be a terrible thing.


Artist, Montreal
Diagnosed with HIV in 1994
Untitled, 2006
10" x 8" x 2", wooden box, baby bottle, pills

This work of art represents my own relationship with anti-HIV pills — feeling sometimes too full (the bottle is full of pills, like me) or being dependent (as a baby is dependent, I’m dependent on my antiretrovirals). It also exposes the reality of babies living with HIV. I am a woman living with HIV and I know many women around me with this reality, and babies too. I always try to express the reality of women living with HIV through my art, because that is my reality. For instance, I have made two other works of art out of purses — one is filled with many little bottles of pills spilling out of it and one is made with AZT pills (among the first HIV meds).

Most of the art I make is connected to having HIV. I started making art five years ago because I was very sick. I had lots of things that I wanted to express and I found that creating art was the best way. Art is a way for me to transform things. I like to use objects from my daily life and put them in another situation. I use pills as a material for my art because playing with them and transforming them is a way for me to tame them.

I wasn’t at the AIDS 2006 exhibit but I was at the art posi+ive exhibit at the Harm Reduction 2006 conference in Vancouver last spring. It was a great experience to meet other artists from Canada who are making art about HIV and to exchange ideas about our vision and reality.

Photograph: Paul Litherland


Office work pays the bills, but photography feeds my passion.”
Diagnosed with HIV in 1991
A Future Awaits, 2005
18" x 15", photography

My HIV diagnosis took away many things, none so critical as hope. In recent years, my photography has proven an invaluable tool with which to explore the many repercussions of this illness — from fear to anger, resignation to despair, and all the emotions in between. Documenting this consciousness became a way of confronting that which had seemed so overwhelming and, in doing so, taking back control of my life, little by little. It is an ongoing process.

“A Future Awaits” is a digital self-image that represents a turning point in my HIV experience — the change from “dying of” to “living with” HIV. I reached a point in 2005 when I allowed myself, for the first time in many years, to actually contemplate a future, one not exclusively ruled by HIV. I wanted a photo that could illustrate a sense of looking forward, into the future, but not one free of obstacles — a realistic future, complicated and challenging, but also filled with light and life and possibilities.

When I first read about the art posi+ive exhibit, I thought that for me — a photographer who has lived with HIV for 14-plus years — to express visually how HIV actually feels would be quite easy. How wrong I was. Attempting to illustrate how HIV attaches itself to all aspects of your being became a fascinating, frustrating and ultimately very rewarding exercise. Having my work included in this exhibit brought a sense of validity and inclusion and a wonderful sense of peace.


Graphic designer, Vancouver
Diagnosed with HIV in 2001
Sacred Heart, 2005
17" x 30", Computer, hand illustration, scans of print material, photography, on dry mount

Ironically, my work became brighter and simpler after my diagnosis. My work stems more from the world around me than from the issues within my own body.

“Sacred Heart” illustrates the descent from joy, innocence and health into darkness — and the ability to ascend to those ideals once again. The symbolism of the raw human heart with the glow behind it and the haloed cherubic boys brings forth the iconography of Christianity, a religion that shuns me as a sexual being. The ideal male figure degrading into torn flesh and fading into the alley below speaks to the obsession of the gay male with a perfect body and the potential to lose oneself in that pursuit and subsequent celebration, so that in the end it is all lost. As well, I live in Vancouver’s Lower East Side and see the product of drug abuse and poverty daily, in all sexes and sexualities. I believe that drug abuse is a sickness in our society and in gay culture but ultimately one that we can pull ourselves back from.


Artist/painter, Toronto
Diagnosed with HIV in the mid-1990s
The Myth of Marsyas, 2004
4 ft x 5 ft, oil on canvas

This piece is rooted in a Greek myth, in which the shepherd Marsyas challenges the god Apollo to a musical contest. Marsyas inevitably loses, and as punishment he is flayed alive for his arrogance. A scene from this myth is visible as a painting set in the background within the main painting.

When I made this piece I had just resigned from a job as a bouncer, which required me to physically fight with men on a regular basis. (I am the figure on the left of the painting.) The painting is a meditation on hubris and negotiating the limits and results of violence. It also was, for me, a work about sexuality and identity being shaped by forces both within myself and beyond my control, and learning to deal with their impact on my life.

Being in the art posi+ive exhibit was wonderful. Everyone was enormously supportive, sweet and helpful. The martinis were quite tasty, too.


Community developer / advocate / photographer, AIDS Committee of Ottawa
Diagnosed with HIV in 1999
Almost a Ghost, 2004
13" x 19", digital art

My HIV status determines many factors in my life, from work to relationships to my art. I always try to express my feelings through art, and those feelings are normally closely related to my HIV status and my journey through life being HIV positive. The experiences and feelings sometimes are too complex to express with simple photography, and that’s why I prefer to use image manipulation through digital art — to get closer to what I want to express.

“Almost a Ghost” is about loneliness and feeling lost; sometimes the feeling is one of people not noticing me or just barely. Sometimes I feel like I am in the autumn of life, walking through life almost transparent.

The art posi+ive exhibit was a very positive and rewarding experience. As an artist, it allowed me to show my art and gave me exposure in the community. As a PHA, it validated me as a person and as a professional, provided me with dignity and value, which sometimes is so difficult to achieve due to the stigma and discrimination associated with this infection.