Metanoia is a Powerful Examination of the Community-Based Responses to the AIDS Crisis
Author: Steven G. Fullwood
January 12, 2020
“I am an incarcerated Person With AIDS (PWA) at the Central California Women’s Facility at Chowchilla (CCWF). I have been in and out of prison, this is not bragging. It is really shameful that it took me 43 years and AIDS to wake up!”
— Excerpt by Joanna Walker from Letter from Chowchilla PWA. Out of Time. Issue No. 21, January 1994.
Joann Walker’s fascinating story was waiting dormant in several boxes of the Judy Greenspan Papers, a prisoner rights activist concentrating on HIV/AIDS in California at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center (The Center). Walker and Greenspan worked together in the mid-1990s to bring attention to the degrading health conditions at the women’s prison in Chowchilla. The papers contain letters between the two women, interviews with Walker, newsletters with her articles, press releases and other supporting materials. Walker’s activism is inspiring, instructive, and transformative.
Metanoia, an exhibition that first opened at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center (heretofore known as The Center) in New York City last March 2019, and will be opening in West Hollywood at the One Gallery on January 17th, 2020, makes great use of the Greenspan’s archive. The curators dove into the Greenspan papers and unearthed an exhibition that “centers primarily on the contributions and experiences of Black cis and trans women, and cis and trans women of color, who have always been at the forefront of movement work, but who are often found at the margins of AIDS archives, art shows and histories.” Walker, whose advocacy began while she was incarcerated in Chowchilla, occupies the locus of these stories.
Metanoia is curated by Katherine Cheairs, Alexandra Juhasz, Theodore Kerr, and Jawanza James Williams (see end of interview for bios) for What Would An HIV Doula Do? (WWHIVDD), a collective of artists, filmmakers, writers and activists committed to ensuring that community plays a key role in the current AIDS response. Moved by the beauty and power of the exhibition, I took the opportunity to speak with each curator about the form, focus and function of Metanoia, and how collaboration centered the exploration and execution of the exhibition.
Katherine, I attended the premiere of Metanoia on March 11 and attended the reception. I couldn’t have imagined the sobering, inspiring beauty of Metanoia, particularly of Joann Walker and her AIDS advocacy work while incarcerated. How did you find Ms. Walker, and can you talk about why her work centers Metanoia?
Katherine Cheairs: The decision was made among the curatorial team to center the stories of Black women, women of color and transwomen/femmes; to see what would happen if the HIV & AIDS narrative was told through that lens as a starting place. I thought it was very important to let the archive speak and share what it might have to offer. It was also important to understand that if we committed to these stories that it might require some digging into the archive since these are marginalized stories. The team received a finding aid from Caitlin McGarthy, the archivist at the LGBT Community Center, and I found the Judy Greenspan Papers of note because its subject headings were: Women, Incarceration, and California.I didn’t know what would be in there but because it had women and incarceration in the title, that perhaps there’d be women of color narratives contained within it. The Greenspan papers are extensive and meticulously kept. The focus was on three boxes which spanned some work done at Chowchilla Detention Center. I found an article in The Fire Inside Newsletter about Joann Walker. A photo of her was featured on its cover with words from her on a side bar and a thumbnail photograph of this Black woman gazing out with steely determination. It took my breath away. I stared at her image for a long time and it was deeply emotional. I knew this was somebody as we’d say “down south.” Could this be the Ida B. Wells of HIV/AIDS activism in prison, I wondered. The rest of the narrative of who she was unfolded in several boxes. Archival work is a detective story and pieces of the puzzle were filled in through the personal letters exchanged between Judy and Joann, as well as the activism work at Chowchilla. Greenspan confirmed that Joann was a pioneer in how we talk about women and incarceration and her legacy is seen everywhere today. It wasn’t clear that the show would center her until we began mapping out the exhibition. I am not sure that there was confidence in the beginning to tell the story of HIV & AIDS through incarcerated Black women. We didn’t see that coming. The question became, if we’re doing this, then how do we create an exhibition that’s uplifting and true to the spirit of Walker and the other women at Chowchilla?
I believe that was achieved in Metanoia. The care of the Judy Greenspan Papers and the lives of the women inspired the design and subsequent installation to think about placement as a necessary component of creating the moment you experienced seeing the show. I believe in time travel, intuition and spiritual guidance. Letting the archive speak was of utmost importance and Joann was the voice that emerged because there was receptivity to hear her, see her and say her name.
Jawanza, what does Metanoia mean for HIV/AIDS advocacy work, today and in the past? What could it mean?
Jawanza James Williams: First, it is important to be clear on terms: HIV/AIDS advocacy is a tool of HIV/AIDS centered organizing. Organizing, in terms of socio-political movement building, is about guiding people through a radical transformative process of development through work to improve an individual’s immediate conditions while advancing a macroscopic vision for a different sort of world, where phenomena like HIV/AIDS do not exist and certainly do not persist along racial, class, and geographic lines. “Metanoia” is a word and concept that articulates this process and the phenomena of transforming the human condition; I’d go further and say that applied organizing produces metanoia.
When I first learned the term “metanoia,” it was at Middle Collegiate Church on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, known for being a welcoming and affirming Christian church. Reverend Jacqui Lewis is a dynamic speaker, theologian, and political leader for many folks as we experience a resurgence of social justice-oriented, faith-based organizing. When Reverend Lewis used “metanoia” in one of her sermons, she dispelled oppressive theology concerning repentance, and suggested that what God calls Her people to is to transform ourselves and the world around us through love. I was particularly moved because I know that the same sort of energy she was articulating is what the movement to end AIDS is successful at manifesting.
I know that participating in political work to eradicate AIDS from all societies requires the continued humanization of those at greatest risk. That means ensuring that those of us living with HIV are the folks at the helm of any work to address the socio-political implications of the pandemic.
When organizing for one’s life, and for justice, in particular concerning HIV/AIDS, there is a natural destigmatizing that occurs, because people are transformed in their experience of HIV as it becomes clear that ultimately, individual behaviors are not the primary driver of this pandemic but structural, social, and political failures.
If all responses to HIV/AIDS aimed to facilitate a radical transformation of our world by working with people living with HIV/AIDS, we could truly transform the world and its cultures for the better, and metanoia could be the phenomena that usher in a world that rivals our greatest fantasies.
Ted, how did the partnership come about with the ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives at USC Libraries?
Ted Kerr: The ONE has a history of doing great exhibitions about HIV, like 2018’s Lost & Found: Safer Sex Activism,curated by David Evans Frantz and Hannah Grossman. Late last year, when the ONE contacted Alex about curating a NYC-based AIDS exhibition that would be on view at the LGBT Center, Alex said, “Yes, and …” While she was excited about the opportunity, she would only do it if she could curate it with others. As Alex has explained, it is not in her politics to even conceive of curating an exhibition about AIDS by herself. So, she got in touch with some other members of What Would an HIV Doula Do? and we said yes. The ONE was also on board with the collaborative approach, and that is how the four of us came to work with the ONE and The Center.
To the collaborative table, us curators brought our vast and individual experience and a shared compulsion to ensure that within the halls of The Center, where you have artists like Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf on permanent view, whose work is emblematic of a vital AIDS aesthetic, we took up space where the lives, tactics and aesthetics of Black women fighting for life and freedom in the face of state neglect and the virus could be seen alongside, in connection, parallel. For this opportunity I am grateful to The Center and The ONE for working together, and with us, to find ways to ensure that the archives are activated and put in conversation with each other.
There are so many stories about HIV/AIDS and we need more platforms and opportunities to share and witness them. And within that, we need different and varied ways of seeing AIDS. For me, there is deep meaning in the fact that freedom fighters Katrina Haslip and Joann Walker, are united in Metanoia. They both fought for Black women and other people living with HIV to be recognized and free. Informing their work was their own positive HIV status, and being incarcerated by the state. As much as our show is about the virus, archives and history, I think it is worth highlighting that it is also about prison. We have as much shared context with past exhibitions like AIDS At Home, (curated by Stephen Vider), EVERYDAY (curated by our own Alex along with Hugh Ryan and Jean Carlomusto, and Art AIDS America (curated by Jonathan David Katz and Rock Hushka), as we do with Walls Turned Sideways (curated by Risa Puleo ) and Cell Count. (Kyle Croft and Asher Mones).
Within all of this, it has been interesting to consider something that is alive in your work, Steven: what are the limits and possibilities of LGBTQ archives? How can they be used to tell our stories in relationship to abolition, anti-Black racism, poverty, and so much more? Metanoia does not position Joann Walker and Katrina Haslip as LGBTQ folks, specifically. Rather, we the curators found stories of them and their activism within the LGBTQ archives. Something that Alex and I are thinking about as we write a book about the cultural history of AIDS is, who are the stewards of AIDS archives? And what responsibilities do LGBTQ archives, which hold a lot of AIDS resource material, have to non-LGBTQ people living with HIV?
Alexandra, collaboration is at the heart of Metanoia, first with Joann Walker and her fellow incarcerated friends, and with you and the other curators. What made this collaboration integral to the success of Metanoia? What were the challenges of working with the other curators?
Alexandra Juhasz: The What Would an HIV AIDS Doula Do? Collective understands that HIV/AIDS is never something a person should experience alone. It is my sense that all doula work, including curating and archival research, should also be done and learned and shared in community and in conversation. HIV/AIDS is too complex, too political, too diverse for any one person to grasp, change, or live alone. For me, collaboration is a tried and true feminist method that allows for power and knowledge to develop, grow, change, and intensify because activists working through shared commitments always have places of consolidation and affinity as well as crucial areas where the world, self, others, and history look and feel different. From these differences—that can be aligned through careful processes of listening and consideration that connect in places of found affinity—better, brighter, smarter, more healthy and responsive ideas and engagements emerge. This said, collaborations across difference must be hard. That’s sort of the point. The places of tension, of disagreement, of the lacking of shared vocabularies are precisely where new knowledge will emerge, that is, if the group has structures in place to stay the course, stay respectful, and stay connected through uncertainty. For this group, we had never all worked together on one project, let alone something so large and important. And, we had differences of age, race, sexuality, HIV-status, employment, class, and more. Our challenge was to create processes and interactions that could allow us to acknowledge and respect each other’s varied knowledge, position, needs and commitments (under a very tight deadline). And, we realized, that this was a practice of metanoia. And that’s no simple thing; that’s why it’s powerful. We are transforming ourselves by gravitating to and learning from others because of AIDS.
Opening Reception: Friday, January 17, 2020 | 5:00–8:00 PM
On view January 17 – April 5, 2020
Location: ONE Gallery, West Hollywood
626 North Robertson Boulevard
West Hollywood, CA 90069
Katherine “Kat” Cheairs is a filmmaker, educator, curator, activist and community artist. Kat is the producer and director of Ending Silence, Shame & Stigma: HIV/AIDS in the African American Family and does numerous work to highlight the untold stories of people of color impacted by HIV & AIDS. Ms. Cheairs has a Master of Fine Arts in Film and Television Production from the Dodge College of Film and Media Arts at Chapman University and is currently a doctoral student in Art and Art Education at Teachers College, Columbia University. Kat is an Associated Artist with Culture Push. Ms. Cheairs is from Atlanta, GA and currently lives in Harlem, NY.
Alexandra Juhasz has been making and thinking about AIDS activist video since the mid-80s. She is the author of AIDS TV: Identity, Community and Alternative Video (Duke, 1995), and a large number of AIDS educational videos including Living with AIDS: Women and AIDS (1987), Safer and Sexier: A College Student’s Guide to Safer Sex (1991), and Video Remains (2005). Most recently she’s been engaging in online cross-generational dialogue with AIDS activists and scholars about the recent spate of AIDS imagery after a lengthy period of representational quiet. “AIDS Reruns: Becoming‘Normal’? A Conversation on ‘The Normal Heart’ and the Media Ecology of HIV/AIDS,” with Ted Kerr, Indiewire, August 18, 2014 and “Home Video Returns: Media Ecologies of the Past of HIV/AIDS,” Cineaste (May 2014). She is a Professor of Media Studies at Brooklyn College and is currently co-curating, with Jean Carlomusto and Hugh Ryan, Visual AIDS 2016 art show, EVERYDAY, and Day With(out) Art video program: Compulsive AIDS Video.
Theodore Kerr is a Brooklyn-based writer, organizer and artist whose work focuses on HIV/AIDS, community and culture. His writing has appeared in the Village Voice, Poz Magazine, The Body, Lambda Literary and other publications. He is currently a teacher at The New School’s Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts with a focus on HIV/AIDS and art. He is a founding member of What Would an HIV Doula Do?
Jawanza James Williams (pronouns, He, Him, They, Them) is a Black, radical Queer, Prison Abolitionist, Socialist, Community Organizer. Jawanza is the Lead Organizer for VOCAL-NY, where he organizes low-income New Yorkers across the state, having transitioned from being the organization’s Youth Organizer. Jawanza is an alumni of Public Allies of New York. Jawanza is a native of Beaumont, Texas. He holds a B.A. in English from Schreiner University. Williams is also an alumni of Public Allies of New York, and Center for Neighborhood Leadership, organizations dedicated to training professional Organizers, and increasing the capacity of nonprofit community based organizations.