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Black artists have always led AIDS activism. This tribute wants to give them credit

Still from Ira Sachs's film <em>Last Address. </em>
Last Address
Still from Ira Sachs's film Last Address.

In his 2010 short documentary Last Address, filmmaker Ira Sachs streamed images of the exteriors of the houses, apartments, and lofts where New York City artists had lived at the time of their deaths from AIDS-related complications. When Alex Fialho saw the elegiac film as a young curator in his mid-20s, it struck him as a powerful meditation on loss, and a statement about the ongoing presence of these artists in memory and history.

Having just moved to New York, Fialho says he was inspired to visit these sites himself. "Keith Haring's address at 542 LaGuardia Place, Felix Gonzales-Torres's address at London Terrace on W. 23rd Street," Fialho recalls, "That personal ritual of remembrance really gave me a sense of the lived experience of these artists who I greatly admired."

As programs director of the nonprofit arts organization Visual AIDS (a position now held by Kyle Croft), Fialho wanted to make that experience public, so he started approaching cinemas and museum partners to hold "Last Address" tribute walks in neighborhoods across the city, events to collectively memorialize key AIDS-related sites and recognize the ongoing presence, contributions, and impact of queer artists.

Beginning in 2014, tribute walks took place in the East Village, then Chelsea (2015), the Lower East Side (2016), the West Village (2017), the Meatpacking District (2018), and Times Square (2019). Before the pandemic forced a pause, Fialho says the walks grew from year to year. "At our last event, in Times Square, we had over a hundred people."

"Last Address" Tribute Walk in Times Square, at 328 W. 44th St, the last address of Reinaldo Arenas.
/ Alex Fialho
/
Alex Fialho
"Last Address" Tribute Walk in Times Square, at 328 W. 44th St, the last address of Reinaldo Arenas.

When Last Address resumes this year, on Saturday, May 28, the approach will be a little different. The location, Harlem, was suggested by the poet and activist Pamela Sneed, who points out that Black artists have always led AIDS activism, but their losses and contributions have often been overlooked or erased from AIDS narratives. At the same time, Sneed notes that Harlem's queer legacy hasn't been fully recognized, "You would go to Lenox Lounge, and even though you knew it was a Black queer spot, you wouldn't think of it as such."

Blake Paskal, who's affiliated with Visual AIDS and the Studio Museum in Harlem, says both organizations have been planning the 2022 tribute walk for a year. In addition to conventional archival research, they sought input from Black LGBTQ+ elders such as Antionettea "Dreadie" Etienne, Luna Luis Ortiz, and Lee Soulja Simmons, and used oral histories, conversations, personal correspondence, and photographs to document people and places of creativity, community, and care.

As in past years, Harlem's Last Address tribute walk will kick off with a screening of Sachs' film, which will be followed by opening remarks from Sneed. Doorstep tributes will commence along an established route, led by those who have a close relationship with the site or artist.

Ballroom icons Tracey "Africa" Norman and David Ultima will speak at the former site of the Elks Lodge, one of the central locations in the 1990 documentary Paris is Burning, paying tribute to a venue that fostered identity, community, and support for people living with HIV/AIDS. Historian Michael Henry Adams will speak at the former address of Lenox Lounge, where greats such as Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane once performed, spotlighting how the iconic jazz club also became a significant LGBTQ+ social spot in the early 2000s.

Artist submission: "Lenox Lounge" (Before) 2010 Harlem, NYC.
/ Ruben Natal-San Miguel
/
Ruben Natal-San Miguel
Artist submission: "Lenox Lounge" (Before) 2010 Harlem, NYC.

The writer Robert E. Penn will also honor their late friend B.Michael Hunter outside the home in Malcolm Shabazz Gardens where he died in 2001 with his husband Johnny and other loved ones at his side. Penn and Hunter became friends as members of Other Countries, a close-knit collective of Black gay writers founded by Daniel Garrett in 1986. Also known as Bert, B.Michael Hunter edited the group's work for publication, including the 1993 Lamda Literary award-winning anthology "Sojourner: Black Gay Voices In the Age of AIDS."

Penn says they were particularly impressed by B.Michael Hunter's 1991 poem "Bridgetown." "He was basically talking about intersectionality 20 years before it became a term that lots of people recognize and can discuss," Penn says. Speaking of his nom de plume, they explain, "It makes sense that B.Michael is 'Be Michael': Be Michael to the fullest you can be, be Michael authentically, be Michael without needing to explain yourself."

Saturday's route will stretch for more than a mile, yet Sneed says it only represents a fraction of the history that Visual AIDS and the Studio Museum have mapped. She describes the tribute walk as a starting point for mourning loss and recovering legacy.

Daonne Huff, Director of Public Programs and Community Engagement explains, "For a lot of people, when we think of Harlem we think of art, when we perhaps think of queer art histories it stops in the Harlem Renaissance. I think this project was an opportunity to really spotlight the fact that queer creatives never left."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Allyson McCabe