Mapping Stigma:

An Archive of the Contracting an Issue Project

*The documentation of the show was photographed by: Eg Schempf

Mapping Stigma: An Archive of the Contracting an Issue Project a three month long exhibition at the Leedy-Voulkos Art Center which presented archival and new works from GK Callahan’s, decade-long study of the social issues surrounding HIV/AIDS. This work springs from real life voices in the communities of San Francisco, Kansas City, Tampa and Tanzania, Africa. The layered visual works were also accompanied by educational workshops and panel discussions that occurred once a month during the exhibition’s three-month run.

Curated by Kansas City art critic and curator Blair Schulman, this show called attention to the cultural responses concerning criminalization, representation, and stigmatization of HIV/AIDS. Comprising photography, video, painting, installation and works on paper, the exhibition was broken out into four distinct sections of the gallery space and includes work from the Zekana women of Tanzania, Africa, Bruce Burstert and many other collaborators.

(Hear GK Callahan and Blair Schulman discuss the show on KCUR-Central Standard)


The primary documentation of Contracting An Issue is shown through looped videos of performances that derived from interviews around HIV in a modern context. These dialogues were transcribed and read by actors to amplify exposure and ensure anonymity.

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Criminalization education and advocacy that has not kept pace with public policy were presented as a reading space in the gallery. This open source library on HIV criminalization also included free handouts and safe sex items. The issue of criminalization was discussed with LGBTQ, law and healthcare communities from Kansas City, Columbia, Missouri, Jefferson City and New York City as one of the exhibition’s panel discussion modules.

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Mimi ni/I am (literally meaning I am/I am) concerns the Zekana women of Arusha, Tanzania, a self-supporting community of HIV-positive women who face stigmatization at home for their health status. Callahan requested and received permission from them to share their story to illustrate how healthcare education in other parts of the globe are as stagnant and oppressive as it was in the West thirty years earlier when less was known about HIV/AIDS. Callahan was also interested in how HIV is perceived globally. Callahan believes that in America HIV/AIDS is still regarded as a “gay issue,” but In Africa women alone, regardless of sexual orientation, bear the brunt of the blame. Callahan presents the women and their work as an homage to their unwavering strength and a gesture of respect.

Generations of survivors were represented in this exhibition by a shrine (an original artwork by Bruce Burstert) and a collaborative painting between Callahan and Burstert, about surviving the AIDS crisis. The painting pays homage to Burstert’s late partner, illuminating for us how having survived this crisis does not put an end to the grieving period. It does, however, provide a source of knowledge for why continuing education does not begin and end with treatment alone.


Statement form the Curator

The stigma of discrimination continues to break many tenets of our social contract. There are many kinds of discrimination, none of them good. This exhibition is not a preamble, but documentation of factual statements, imagery and educational components that will help us maneuver and understand the state where emotions and realities collide when discussing HIV.  Our behaviors are not judgments, although facets of this work illustrate the need for a more accepting reality.  On these walls are experiences and situations presented to impart a historical understanding, furthering our collective education.

Contracting An Issue (CAI) is a deeply personal project for artist GK Callahan and his original collaborator, Allison Webber.  The layered findings of this decade long participatory study touch on topics like needle-sharing, treatment variables, stigmatization, status disclosure, criminalization of sexual conduct and community activism in San Francisco, Kansas City, Tampa, and Arusha, Tanzania. Within this show, CAI presents evidence of the social and legal issues that surround HIV/AIDS nearly forty years after it was identified and first came to public knowledge.

This work happened on the streets, in community centers, gardens, and in places all meant for public discourse. Here are relics and snapshots that document the social actions and performances viewed as a community-based art practice.  When HIV/AIDS first came to public awareness, it was not a disease but a condemnation; the diagnosis was swift, brutal and final. It has taken decades to move away from fear of contracting HIV by the most insignificant of activities, like eating off the same dishes, sitting next to someone, and even touching doorknobs.  Over time, and with strong medical research, HIV has moved from certain death to a manageable condition. However, the stigma of carrying HIV continues globally.

For me, it is essential to bring forth a show of this magnitude. As a man of a certain age, I didn’t lose immediate friends and family.  I can however, remember the disintegration of gay communities and the loss of those who defined our culture at that time. It is not a stretch to call my generation the first survivors.  The work here is a part of our history, not only for the LGBTQ community but the history of humankind. This work is an example of what the world fought and protested for; not merely a cure, but the end of this unnecessary hate.  

Blair Schulman – Curator

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