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by Jessica Carreras
Earlier this month, the Community AIDS Resource and Education Services organization hosted their annual World AIDS Day juried art contest, centered each year on a different theme related to HIV/AIDS.
This year’s contest, “You Can’t Get it from Kissing,” honored two artists out of all who submitted pieces on Dec. 5. Joe Mockbee and Natalie Ann Rich of Kalamazoo were chosen as the Juror’s Choice and Viewer’s Choice, respectively, for their poignant art pieces that spoke to the stigma surrounding the disease.
Mockbee, 55, is a full-time cartoonist who began drawing in his 20s and has since sold over 250 pieces, as well as illustrated a children’s book and done brochures for companies.
His piece, “Tolerating the Dog,” is a watercolor cartoon that shows people handing scraps to begging dogs and dog-people, who represent those with HIV/AIDS. “The people with AIDS are competing with the dogs for crusts of bread,” he described of the piece.
All his life, Mockbee struggled with paranoid schizophrenia – and the stigma that surrounds mental health diseases. The experiences, he said, are what helped him to relate to the stigma felt by those with HIV/AIDS. “I’ve run into a lot of people who tolerate me rather than give me the time of day,” he explained. “I felt that might be a problem with a person who had AIDS or HIV.”
Though Mockbee is straight and has not been directly affected by the epidemic, his deep religiosity helps him to be compassionate. “I just think it’s human,” he said. “I’m a new age Christian and I believe that Christ…would want us to be charitable to these people who’ve been inflicted with this disease.”
Plus, his love for Elton John and Ellen DeGeneres doesn’t hurt the cause. Both stars have supported helping fight HIV/AIDS in the past, and their passion spread to Mockbee.
Rich, however, has quite a different story.
A senior at Western Michigan University, Rich, 22, will graduate this spring with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Graphic Design.
Her piece, “Hazardous/Harmless,” explores “the irony that exists in believing there is danger in kissing a person with AIDS, when the most dangerous thing one could possible do is to be ignorant to the social complexities that actually allow them to believe such a lie.”
Rich, who identifies as lesbian, has a background in art, coupled with a strong passion for LGBT issues. Together, the traits provided a canvas for using art for voicing her opinion on social issues. “I’ve always been interested in art as a vehicle for social change, finding that art is the easiest way for me to communicate my ideas and articulate responses to culture,” she explained. “I saw the CARES Contest as an opportunity to challenge conventional notions surrounding HIV/AIDS and to visually explore that stigma in order to further understand it.”
Rich hopes that through activism and art that promotes social change, the epidemic – and the stigma that accompanies it – can become a thing of the past. “It really is unfortunate to see so many people looking at HIV/AIDS through a lens of discrimination, or even paranoia,” she stressed. “We have a lot of work to do in regards to changing the social attitude around this topic, and I think the best thing we can do is to not let silence perpetuate these social stigmas.”