March 1, 2010  |  Events & Programs
The Masks We Wear: Identity, Art, and AIDS

Photo: Aaron Wojack

When I took over the Community Outreach Coordinator position three years ago, Housing Works was the first organization that I reached out to and brought in as a new Community Partner. The largest community-based AIDS organization in the United States, for the past 20 years they have tackled the twin crises of HIV/AIDS and homelessness, offering housing, medical and mental health care, meals, job training, drug treatment, HIV prevention education, and social support to over 20,000 New York City residents.

When discussing possible themes for the first art-making project of our partnership, Makiko Young, who was running the art therapy program at Housing Works’ 9th Street center at the time, brought up the idea of identity and masks. “Oftentimes,” she told me, “the participants wear ‘masks’ to camouflage their illness from families, friends, and the public. The theme of our mask-making project was to explore their identity, besides simply being a person living with HIV/AIDS.”

It seemed a good fit with the early-Modern sections of our collection as well. From Paul Klee’s Actor’s Mask (1924) to James Ensor’s Masks Confronting Death (1888), to the green, blank-eyed faces on the women of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s Street, Dresden (1908), masks make multiple appearances throughout our fifth-floor galleries. Most famously, Pablo Picasso drew on his knowledge of African tribal masks when creating the groundbreaking Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907)—a work that also explores the artist’s fears regarding his own exposure to sexually-transmitted disease.

Our art-making process began with repeated trips to MoMA, as well as discussing and viewing reproductions of MoMA collection works at the Housing Works center downtown. This initial exposure served two purposes. First, it exposed participants to the artworks and techniques we would be using for inspiration. Second, and most importantly, it allowed participants, who had until very recently been living at the fringes of society, a re-entry point into the important—yet often intimidating—mainstream cultural institutions of our city.

“’I didn’t know that I was allowed to visit MoMA’ was a comment made by a male participant in his 40s who had AIDS, in addition to both anxiety and depression,” Makiko remembers. “What he was suggesting was that museums are not for everyone. During the trips to the Museum, MoMA became a place to improve their emotional, as well as visual, literacy. Viewing the art at MoMA made the participants feel that their thoughts and emotions were no different from the thoughts and emotions of the artists themselves. That they weren’t so different from other people.”

Photos: Aaron Wojack

In the weeks that followed, we constructed clay molds and covered them in sticky papier-mâché. We then peeled the dried papier-mâché off, painted the masks brightly in homage to the works we had seen in the Museum galleries, and decorated them with cloth and other materials. For our final workshop, a photographer friend kindly offered his services free of charge, and we set up a makeshift studio in the center’s garden to photograph the participants in the masks they had created.

The masks dealt with a vast array of themes: sexuality, gender, ethnicity, economics, and mental health, to name just a few. The works you see here reflect the immense hope and honesty of the participants. These masks reveal a truth, rather than conceal one.