I caught up with filmmaker Ash Kotak for a preview of the AIDS Histories & Cultures Festival 2018.
Where did the inspiration for the festival come from?
Professor Matt Cook, leading queer historian at Birkbeck University of London, was invited to Amsterdam to discuss the possibility of convening parallel AIDS Cultures and Histories festivals — in Amsterdam and in London — in July 2018 to coincide with the International AIDS conference. He made contact with UK colleagues in health, history, and activism, and that’s how it all began.
The festival is convened by the Raphael Samuel History Centre, in partnership with Aesthesia — many varied organisations, businesses, artists, and activists have been involved from the start.
Why do we need a festival about AIDS and HIV?
Because AIDS is an integral part of our past, present, and future. On this 30th year of World AIDS Day, we have an opportunity to look back at AIDS, recognise our achievements, and remember that 35 million people are living with HIV worldwide — 50 percent of them can’t access life-saving medications.
AIDS is still a worldwide issue, which mainly affects women and people of colour — last year 58 percent of new infections were seen in women.
In the UK, it was announced that new HIV infections had dropped in gay men. There’s more to this — it dropped for white gay men, but doubled or even tripled for Black and Asian gay men. There’s a lot more work to be done, HIV is not over.
Who is the target audience for the festival?
This is a festival for everyone. We’re working with all the main affected groups via the AIDSMemoryUK Campaign, the HIV sector, the Haemophilia society, and service users — including the GBT communities, Black African groups, women’s groups, and injecting drug users. A positive HIV/AIDS message we can take from the disaster that is AIDS, is ‘unity’ — AIDS bought together people from different communities to fight for their survival. This is very powerful. The festival program reflects that.
What are some of the highlights of the festival that we should be looking out for?
The whole festival is structured like a university module. The more you attend, the more you learn — but you learn by having fun. The arts are a fantastic way to experience the past and understand other people’s experiences. The struggle against AIDS has a rich creative culture surrounding it. There is a strong academic strand which will be of interest to many interested in history and in the archiving of experiences.
Bridges is the cultural strand of the festival, curated by Aesthesia and the AIDSMemoryUK Campaign. Most events are free or low cost, some are fundraisers for the AIDSMemoryUK Campaign. It’s meant to be fun, and a jolly good night out. The cultural strand includes events led by BAME organisations such as open mic Poetry LGBT — which launches the festival at the Curtain Club in Shoreditch — and Club Kali dance in N19. There’s also the Incite poetry event, with Trudy Howson LGBT Laureate, followed by drag and song with Michael Twaits — with guests from the West End shows at the Phoenix Artist Club in Soho.
The Glory are hosting three events — from film to theatre to a big, anarchic, draggy, pop dance party, featuring images of club life from the 1980s to today.
Gays The Word will host a reading evening of new and old books about people’s experiences from all the communities — including the trans community, and especially looking at women. Or you can join the East London AIDS History walk and pub crawl.
We have a weekend of classical music at the beautiful Fitzrovia Chapel — the remains of the Middlesex Hospital, where one of the first AIDS wards in the UK was established. This will feature a debut by world-renowned HIV doctor, Joseph Sonnabend, who wrote wonderful classical music pieces in NYC at the height of the AIDS crisis, as a way of dealing with his own trauma of seeing his patients and friends die.
There’s also an exhibition of AIDS posters from around the world at the V&A Museum — it’s a brilliant way to learn about the history of AIDS health education worldwide.
Another highlight is a screening of After Louie at the Curtain Club in Shoreditch, including a Q&A with director Vincent Gagliostro. This will be followed by drinks and a special performance by the Joyful Noise Choir, which is made up of people living with HIV.
Is this just a one-off festival, or will it become an annual event?
We’d love to make it an annual event, but lack of funding and resourcing has been a drawback. We’ve put this together on no funding whatsoever, with some amazing help and incredibly hard work from individual activists, organisations, and businesses who’ve gone out of their way to put on events and help make things happen. But, never say never.
How does the festival reflect the changing landscape of HIV?
The sting has gone out of AIDS in the UK, with messages such as U=U being highlighted. PEP and PREP will of course be highlighted, but we must remember that knowledge of these tools is not getting out to BAME Gay Men. AIDS is not over, and too many people are still dying worldwide. We in the West are lucky. I believe we now need to fight for the world towards EndAIDS2030.
What do you hope that people feel as a result of the AIDS Histories & Cultures Festival?
HIV has been demonised and now, in the UK at least, it no longer needs to be. In this country, HIV no longer equals death, but still too many people test too late.
The festival organisers want people to be entertained, to feel enlightened, to be reflective, to stay interested, to be inspired, and feel stronger, with a heightened awareness of HIV issues that affect us all — in the past, present, and towards the future and EndAIDS2030.
We must continue the struggle and the fight and help all people living with HIV in the World. It’s possible, but we must join up together to fight the stigmatisation of a virus, and the moralisation of it which has continued into the 4th decade of AIDS.
Ash Kotak trained at the London Film School where he graduated with a distinction in producing. He has won a number of awards. His latest films, which he executive produced, are Punched by a Homosexualist, (2018, Russia, documentary, 55 mins), and The Joneses (2016, USA, documentary, 90 mins).
He has set up a company called Aesthesia. Ash teamed up with photographer Juergen Teller, iD Magazine (Spring 2018) and 29 young people affected by the Grenfell Tower to curate a Photography project called “Youth After Grenfell”. He also leads the #AidsMemoryUK Campaign to establish a national tribute to HIV in the U.K.
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Beach Boys in the Buff
I caught up with artist Marc DeBauch to look at his series of work titled Beach Boys.
When did you discover and start to explore your passion for art?
I started drawing and painting when I was three years old. Before I was five, I remember creating a crayon drawing of the Sinking of the Titanic on the rough plaster of the living-room wall of my parents’ house. It was impossible to remove — my parents weren’t happy with me, but after that they provided me with enough art materials to pursue my creative interests without destroying their home.
When did you start specialising in painting naked men and creating erotic art?
It was 36 years ago when I started painting male nudes and selling them in a local gay book store. Then, in 1995, I entered two paintings in the Tom of Finland Foundation’s Emerging Erotic Artists Contest. I was won first place, which opened the door for my art career, as I was immediately approached by galleries and magazines that wanted to feature my art.
This gave me the confidence and notoriety to exhibit and sell my work at erotic art fairs and gay events. At that time, the internet was just emerging, so my friend Andrew created a website for me, which was a fantastic tool to get my art out to people around the world.
You’ve written that Tom of Finland is one of the major influences on your work — when did you first encounter the work of Tom of Finland?
I remember seeing Tom of Finland’s art in a porno magazine my friend had in high school. I was just amazed at the sexual tension, outrageous anatomy, and attention to detail in Tom’s art.
This was back in the early 1970s, so gay porn was just emerging legally in magazines and films. At the time, I wasn’t talented enough to draw the human figure accurately. But, I was fascinated enough to want to try. My sister’s boyfriend was a photographer, and he gave me his dark room equipment — back then you actually had to develop film, as there were no digital cameras.
I talked a friend into posing naked for me while jacking off, and I developed the film and made some prints. I was 14 years old, photographing another 14-year-old boy. It was very exciting creating my own porn! Unfortunately, my dad — being supportive of my art — wanted to see the photos, and of course I couldn’t show him. Not only did he not approve of gays, he didn’t want his son to be gay. He would have probably hit me if he knew I was a homosexual creating gay porn! So, I destroyed the photos almost in front of him, while saying — “The photos didn’t turn out and I would show him better work at another time.”
I was scared and freaked out. I knew I was self-censoring. But I also realised that if I was going to create erotic art that I would have to do it in secret. When Tom of Finland began drawing naked men, he also had to make his art in secret. I think most erotic artists learn to be very careful about choosing the right audience to exhibit their work to.
Where do you draw your inspiration from?
My inspiration comes from people I know. I’ve been fortunate to see and meet many beautiful men in my life. Capturing their beauty and illustrating them in a unique way, is my goal.
What’s your creative process?
My creative process is different every time I paint. Sometimes an idea for a painting just pops in my head and I try to find model to pose for a photo to match my vision — that’s often the easiest route.
I rarely work from a live model. My paintings take so long to create — I often work all night on a painting — so, finding a model to sit for that long of a period and whenever I want them, is impossible. I use the photos of my models as reference.
Often, I look through hundreds of images and piece things together in a collage. It’s more like a jigsaw puzzle — lots of pieces missing, and my mind fills in those missing pieces with an arm from this model, the chest from another, the dick from another, the face from another, and so on, until I have the entire figure. But then I have to decide how the light and setting will pull all of those puzzle pieces together.
I have dozens of photos that are my references for every detail of plants, animals, rocks, furnishings. I sort through a constant mess of photos — gradually eliminating those references as my brain digests the information and my brush puts it on the canvas or paper.
The paintings that form the Beach Boys series are beautiful — what are some of the challenges in creating beach scenes like this?
Trying to find a balance between the setting and the model is always a challenge. I don’t want the model to overpower the beach, or the beach to feel more important than the model. I want my paintings to have a natural feeling, like you could be at the beach with my models.
Who are the men featured in the paintings of the Beach Boys series?
The men in my Beach Boy series are mostly friends that have modelled for me. Sometimes I find a photograph of a model that someone else has taken, that inspires me to use it as a reference pose to work from, then I find one of the photos of a beach that I’ve visited and I try to recreate a similar pose in a drawing that will eventually become a painting.
What do you hope that people feel when they look at your work?
I don’t want to just give the viewer of my art an erection, I want them to feel like they’re part of the painting, that they want to invite the men in my paintings into their homes, their beds, their dungeon, their car, their locker room, or the bushes for a hot fuck, butt licking, cock sucking, ass spanking good time.
I hope to excite the viewer visually, emotionally as well as spiritually. It’s my goal as an artist and sexually active gay man to paint erotica that continually challenges the views of people who oppose sexual freedom. If my paintings assist the viewer in discovering where they are in the spectrum of human sexuality, then my aim is reaching its target.
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