A #tbt interview with activist and visual artist Nancer LeMoins, and an article originally published in A&U Magazine
Art that Matters
Alina Oswald Talks with Artist Nancer LeMoins About AIDS Stigma, Fighting for More Resources for Women Living with HIV/AIDS and Environmental & Economic Crises
Silence equals death…so let’s make some noise. The thought came to mind upon seeing Nancer LeMoins’ Free Yr Demons, an older art piece created (as I found out) as a response to the AIDS murmurs the artist kept hearing, murmurs that made her question: Why not speak up and make some noise?
“I hope that making art is making noise,” LeMoins says when we talk on the phone. She further explains that Demons is not only about AIDS, but also about any demon we have to face in our lives.
“That’s the way I fight things that I don’t like. I make art about them,” LeMoins explains. A St. Louis native and a San Francisco transplant, the artist cannot remember a time when she did not make art. Events happening in her life have shaped her art—like the move to San Francisco and, most profoundly, her HIV-positive diagnosis in 1986.
“Discovering I was HIV-positive has influenced my artwork. Politicized it,” LeMoins reiterates. Living with HIV/AIDS, fighting it and its politics, while always managing to stay a step ahead of the disease, have shaped her artwork and sharpened her views on the pandemic. “People kinda forgot about people living with HIV,” LeMoins comments. “[HIV] needs to be put out there again because it is happening a lot in America. [There] used to be a lot of awareness around HIV. Not as much awareness anymore. But there is still a lot of stigma.”
The AIDS stigma the artist fights most passionately is the stigma related to women living with HIV/AIDS. While the subject of women and AIDS has been in the news on and off, LeMoins agrees that we need to go beyond the sound bites. She further explains that there are not the same kinds of services or communities available for women living with HIV/AIDS (as there are for men living with the virus). “It makes me angry,” LeMoins says, “because I know a lot of women who are HIV-positive. It’s sorta underground.”
She feels the same way as an artist creating AIDS-inspired artwork, especially in a time when the AIDS crisis is threatening to become less important within the context of the multifaceted crisis in which we live—be those facets economic, environmental, or any other kind. “One time people really wanted to talk about [HIV/AIDS], look at [AIDS-inspired artwork]. But now, if you make [related] work that’s kinda political, people are not interested, because people are tired of it, are tired of crises,” the artist explains.
LeMoins compares AIDS with an erupting crisis that no one is paying attention to. It frustrates her, but also enables her to create related artwork that matters and that goes beyond AIDS to tackle other issues.
“Making art about AIDS has had an impact on other work that I do because it really made me realize that art can be a social commentary medium,” LeMoins explains. “That I can make an important point by making art. That’s how I approach making art now.”
A vibrant visual reflection of the raw reality of the AIDS crisis, current economic crisis or environmental crisis, the state of healthcare or politics, Nancer LeMoins’ artwork is consistently memorable and unique, thought-provoking and eye-opening. It is loud and daring, provocative and brave, remarkable.
Nancer LeMoins’ art is a work of passion. And the artist’s passion is contagious, enabling and inspiring others to face their fears and insecurities, to rebel (if necessary) against corruption, and to fight to right the wrongs threatening to destroy our world. LeMoins’ artwork remains powerful, and vocal, spreading a clear and powerful message.
Devil in Heart, for example, was inspired by a quote by Gandhi: “The only devils in this world are those running around in our own hearts, and that is where all our battles should be fought.”
Blood Money was created as an artistic response to a true story. “That’s an interesting one,” LeMoins says, when I mention the intriguing title of the piece. “I got a phone call one day from this researcher in the hospital,” the artist explains, adding that she’s been through a lot of research studies. “And he said, ‘Would you like to sell your brain?’ and I said, ‘Oh, how much?’ and he said, ‘Five hundred dollars, but you don’t get it until you die.’”
While it sounded like blood money to the artist, it also sounded hilarious and inspired her art piece. Blood Money made me think of the current state of healthcare and related political battle. When I mention it to her, she’s pleased that her artwork makes people think about things…and she offers her own view on healthcare: “As long as healthcare will be for profit, we’re all gonna be screwed.”
Some pieces are more tongue-in-cheek than others. One example is Embrace Your Pain (You Might Get Bloody), which was created as a response to people’s constant complaints about their pain. Embrace Your Pain is a piece about how Jesus embraces his pain, the reason why many people find it offensive.
But LeMoins is not afraid of creating art that might offend people, as she’s not afraid of using her art to take on politics and politicians. Blind Obedience, for example, is one example of the artist’s many timely and timeless art pieces. Specifically about George W. Bush, the symbolism and message of Blind Obedience apply to a lot of politicians. “I think you can substitute any politician for George W. Bush,” LeMoins explains. “People were blind following him, but the same happens with lots of politicians today.”
The conversation turns to the present crises and deepens while talking about the dire situation in which many people find themselves nowadays. The questions arising from pieces like Blind Obedience are questions the artist asks herself while trying to use her artwork to find an answer: “What’s it gonna take for people to rise up in this country? What’s it gonna take to make a change?”
For a while, the artist hoped that the bailout would trigger the change that we desperately need. It didn’t. The Occupy movement started out very powerfully, but then it kind of got muddled, too many people wanting too many different things.
“Things don’t seem to be going in the right direction,” LeMoins comments. “There’s no cohesive movement. I don’t know what it would take in this country to make a change.”
That being said, people can make small changes. LeMoins hopes to make a small change in people’s hearts through her art.
Change is vital to keep the present apathy and fear from deepening the crises. The most important of all may be the environmental crisis. Global warming is something the artist feels strongly about. As LeMoins explains it, if something were to happen to the world, people living with HIV/AIDS (and sick people in general), would die first and fast, because medications would be of less importance. Finding an AIDS cure, for example, would also be less important.
As a direct response to the environmental crisis, LeMoins created her “Birds” series, a newer body of work, which includes pieces like Flight Patterns, and deals with what’s been happening to our planet. The artist explains the idea for “Birds” through the canary and the coal mine story—when birds start dying, people will follow soon.
While things may seem a bit scary nowadays, LeMoins is not hopeless—quite the contrary. She believes that change can happen through people fighting together rather than each other, and also through art, especially art that matters.
“To me, my activism is my art,” she comments. “And I’m very happy that you’re putting this stuff in [A&U].”
Presently she’s working on a new series, which is about witches. She mentions that, traditionally, if a woman was too powerful, she was accused of being a witch and burnt at the stake. In modern times, women are being put down for being too powerful. Also, women are oppressed because they are HIV-positive. “So I loosely call [the series] ‘Witches,’” she concludes.
Throughout her body of work, Nancer LeMoins has used her artistic voice to confront issues head-on. “When I see an issue, it burns in my mind,” she says. “And I think we have to work [together] to resolve it.”
LeMoins does, using her art as a tool. She encourages others to do the same. If art is their way of fighting issues, she encourages others to “keep making art. Don’t get discouraged, because [for a while] I got a little discouraged about art and the state-of-the-art world. But I think [art] is one of the few things that feed [the] soul, especially art that matters.”