When Leah Mann heard about a 70-percent spike in new HIV cases in young Americans, she decided to fight it like an artist — with a dance piece, an animated video and a huge red condom-shaped balloon.
Collaborating with scientists and university professors, Mann and her partner Ela Lamblin, who together make up the Vashon-based physical music duo Lelavision, created an arts-based HIV awareness campaign that kicked off World AIDS Day in Atlanta on Dec. 1 and is now going national. To help wrap up the exhibition “Art AIDS America” at Tacoma Art Museum Sunday, Mann and Lamblin will bring part of their campaign to Tacoma, involving local African American performing artists in response to recent protest at the exhibit’s lack of diversity.
“There’s more HIV-AIDS in Atlanta than in sub-Saharan Africa,” says Mann, referring to the Georgia state health department statistic that some Atlanta zip codes have a higher HIV prevalence than many African countries. “The hardest hit population is young people aged 13-24, especially African American males. And 62 per cent of all HIV infections globally are in adolescent girls. That’s not in the news. When I heard that I thought, ‘Wow, that is huge, and no one’s talking about it.’ So I took up the torch.”
There’s more HIV-AIDS in Atlanta than in sub-Saharan Africa. The hardest hit population is young people aged 13-24, especially African Americans. When I heard that I thought, ‘Wow, that is huge, and no one’s talking about it.’ ”
Leah Mann, Lelavision
Mann and Lamblin went to work, collaborating with the science departments at Emory University and Atlanta Metropolitan State College to plan an event for World AIDS Day. Lelavision has mixed art and science for decades, exploring everything from genomes to physics via Lamblin’s enormous musical sculptures around which Mann creates choreography. Usually the circus-type performances are humorous and whimsical, with a bit of learning thrown in. This time, it centered on the fact that young people make up 26 percent of new HIV infections every year, that black youth make up half of this number and that more than half of everyone living with HIV doesn’t know it.
26 Percent of new HIV infections in the U.S. are youth aged 13-24.
To fight this, Lelavision is lining up with the UNAIDS goal of “zero new HIV infections, zero discrimination, zero AIDS-related deaths by 2030.” Early last year, Mann created the 30-minute AIDS intervention dance piece “Getting to Zero,” funded by the Elton John AIDS Foundation. Lamblin, an award-winning musician, filmmaker and sculptor, created the animated short “Going #RetroViral,” which pits a fictional rapper HI-V (“high-five,” the HIV virus) against Mr. T (the human T-cell, which fights the virus), to be shown across the country in college and university biology, public health and ethics classes to bring national focus to HIV awareness.
And because the Atlanta AIDS Day events were held outside, Mann also created a piece of performance art involving long inflatable red tubes as metaphors both for positive and negative airflow as well as the importance of everyone working together on HIV awareness..
“Our goals were to raise awareness and help normalize HIV testing,” says Mann. “We are using art as a catalyst to bring attention to the issue and inspire action. We want to dissolve the stigma associated with HIV. … Everyone should know their status because that knowledge will empower them to make healthy choices.”
The project also became highly personal for Mann, as her nephew died of undiagnosed AIDS in February, one month after the piece was commissioned. Her loss became part of her motivation to change the spike in new HIV cases.
We are using art as a catalyst to bring attention to the issue and inspire action. We want to dissolve the stigma associated with HIV.
Leah Mann, Lelavision
The effect in Atlanta was huge, involving students from black and white colleges and encouraging many participants to get tested for HIV on-site.
“It was great,” says Mann, who’s preparing to take “Getting to Zero” to the Atlanta Science Festival in March.
But first, she’s bringing it to the Tacoma Art Museum. For the free community festival Sunday, Mann and Lamblin will give a half-hour presentation of their campaign, including a video of the dance piece accompanied by a live gospel choir from Renton Baptist Church, and poetry by Tacoma spoken word artist Charys Bailey. Mann reached out to the local performers to bring black artists to a show that has been protested in Tacoma and by the show’s own artists for its lack of racial diversity.
“Art AIDS America” is traveling to Atlanta in February, and Mann is hoping her cast can do a full presentation of “Getting to Zero” when it does.
“That would continue the dialogue,” she says. “In order for us to get to zero new case of HIV by 2030 … issues of stigma, race and economic and health disparities will have to be addressed.”
Lelavision “Getting to Zero”
Where: Tacoma Art Museum, 1701 Pacific Ave., Tacoma.
When: 1 p.m. Sunday.
Also: “Art AIDS America” closing party includes free gallery admission (noon-4 p.m.), dance performance by Kate Monthy (1:30 p.m.), condom couture show (2 p.m.) and artist talk with Gran Fury collective (3 p.m., $10/$5)