worked through the images in the archives of Visual AIDS,
I began to notice a fairly large number of religious images.
I found this surprising, but also moving. As I thought about
it, I realized that I had simply assumed that most GLBTQ
artists, even if they had been raised in religious households,
were likely to be secular in their outlook, having decisively
moved away from the religious traditions in which they had
been raised. As I worked my way through the archive, I realized
that was simply not the case and I began to wonder why so
many of the artists were drawn to religious themes and images.
Of course, one reason for their doing so is that some of
the artists are religious, people of faith, with a strong
spirituality which feeds their work.
However, I believe that there are some other things at
work here. Religious images, whether positive or negative,
are a rich visual source for many artists, especially if
those images have been encountered during childhood. Often
such images are the first strong images of suffering, death,
danger, protection, holiness, evil, transcendence and the
promise of an afterlife that one encounters. They are burned
into the memory; and it makes sense that many GLBTQ people
would want to revisit such images, even if they do so with
a critical eye.
I see the religious images in the archive as an attempt
by some GLBTQ artists to change the conversation, to transform
the often negative and hostile information about gay people
in the religious world into something more positive, and
so to alter their own spirituality. These pieces seem like
a conscious attempt to insert the GLBTQ experience into
the existing traditions of religious iconography so that
those traditions suddenly become a kind of new vocabulary,
stripped of apology, the rhetoric of victimization, or gratuitous
anger. Gay people's religious experiences, both positive
and negative, have given them a critical eye and a certain
distance from religious institutions. This has given them
the freedom to interpret their religious experiences and
memories in a new way, allowing them to define their faith
and spirituality in their own way.
I see several examples of this in the collection, specifically
images of suffering, holiness, sainthood and the central
Christian symbol of the cross. A number of artists have
taken those images and examined and reinterpreted them within
the context of HIV and AIDS. By doing this, they have not
only changed the iconography, they have also changed their
understanding of themselves.
The iconography of suffering is a prominent theme in the
collection and it appears in a number of pieces. There are
both bold and subtle images of the suffering Christ. The
crown of thorns is also an image that appears with some
frequency. There are also scenes of martyrdom, a very old
theme in Christian literature and art. The iconography of
suffering before death seems to resonate powerfully for
many gay artists and, I suspect, will always be a theme
to be explored by many gay artists.
The traditional signs and symbols of sainthood are also
often powerfully represented in the works in the archive.
A man, naked except for his black boots, is shown with KS
lesions and a halo; other gay men are represented in a style
suggestive of Eastern Orthodox icons. Is this a way to honor
the dead? Is this a way to redeem the pain and the suffering?
Is this a way to claim a kind of sainthood for those who
have suffered so much, while experiencing so much hostility
Images of transcendence, a move towards paradise, are also
represented. There is an image of a cross on which two embracing
lovers have been crucified. The work transforms the traditional
image of the cross into something new, while preserving
many of the symbol's original meanings. Here, the cross
becomes a critique of homophobia, an affirmation of same-sex
love, and an assertion of the artist's belief in transcendence
and salvation. Here, the love between gay men is something
For me, this art represents the ongoing struggle on the
part of many GLBTQ people to speak about their faith, to
define their spirituality, while critiquing the aspects
of their religious traditions that are homophobic and destructive.
These artists are refusing to be simply secular.
b i o g r a p h y
José Vidal is an architect, interior
designer and freelance curator in New York City. He was
the curator for the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter
College before opening a private art gallery in his home.
Vidal specializes in promoting gay Latino artists as well
as collecting their work.