The Valentine’s Newest Exhibition Reveals Untold Stories from Richmond’s AIDS Epidemic

by | Jan 29, 2020 | QUEER RVA

A new exhibition from the Valentine helps bring stories from Richmond survivors of the HIV/AIDS epidemic into the public eye.

The Valentine latest exhibition opened on Thursday, January 23. Entitled “Voices from Richmond’s Hidden Epidemic,” it displays black-and-white portraits of 30 different HIV/AIDS survivors in Richmond, paired with personal stories detailing their experiences living with the disease. 

Each of the subjects for the exhibition were interviewed by University of Richmond professors Patricia Herrera and Laura Browder. The pictures were taken by photographer Michael Simon.

“People in this exhibition range from people who are much, much older…to much younger people who are still experiencing the epidemic today,” said Browder.

Individuals displayed in the exhibition vary by more than just age, though. The exhibition shares unique stories from members of the LGBTQ community, victims of sexual assault, and undocumented immigrants, among others. Subjects are divided into different groups, such as “Relationships” and “Secrecy/Openness,” according to the ways that HIV/AIDS affected their lives.  

Despite the various lives and experiences of each subject, each portrait in the exhibition is shot exactly the same way — a front-facing, black-and-white close-up.

“I wanted to give everybody, no matter who they were… the same chance visually,” said Simon. “I wanted to strip away context… I wanted people to meet the portrait and give it a fair shot.”

However, the facial expression of each portrait was left up to the subject, resulting in a wide array of emotional tones across the pictures. 

In addition to these portraits, the exhibition also displays “The Cascading Books,” a series of connected scrapbook-esque pieces created by members of St. Paul Baptist Church, the Nia Community Advisory Board, and students at University of Richmond. The piece is inspired by the AIDS Memorial Quilt; each piece of “Cascading Books” is unique, displaying everything from personal pictures to original stories and poems from the creators, all having to do with their experiences with HIV/AIDS.

Work on the exhibition started in 2017, and was expanded upon when Browder learned that Richmond had one of the top 20 highest HIV infection rates in the country. 

“[Curator Meg Hughes] reached out to me,” said Browder. “She asked if I could do a few oral histories of people who survived AIDS. Once I started working on that, I realized that this was a really big story that deserved a much bigger venue.”

The exhibition also received support from several Richmond organizations, such as VCU Health, Wellcome MD, Richmond Memorial Health Foundation, and Virginia Humanities, who helped partially fund the exhibition.

“Voices from Richmond’s Hidden Epidemic” opened to the public on Jan. 23, and was accompanied by free on-site HIV tests provided by the Nationz Foundation. The exhibition is slated to run until May 25, 2020 at The Valentine on 1015 East Clay Street. More information can be found on The Valentine’s Website.

Photos by Jonah Schuhart

Jonah Schuhart

Jonah Schuhart

Jonah Schuhart is a Senior Broadcast Journalism Student at Virginia Commonwealth University. Jonah hopes to use his work to spread goodwill and a positive message. Despite this healthy outlook, he survives solely on a destructive diet of Japanese action games and Cheetos.

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