APIs remain one of the minority groups in NYC that have not seen a decrease in new HIV diagnoses. As part of PrEP Aware Week, Apicha CHC is highlighting this disparity through promoting awareness and helping break stigma -- and artwork designed by queer API New Yorkers.
As part of the first-ever PrEP Aware Week, Apicha CHC asked several Asian and Pacific Islander New York City-based artists to commission artwork. We asked them to create images that they felt represented their relationship with PrEP and the API community. Below is a conversation with the artists.
1. How do you feel about Asian and Pacific Islander (API) representation in public health campaigns in New York City?
Marcos Chin: What representation? As someone who travels often between NYC and Toronto (where I’m originally from) one of the biggest differences between the two cities is the ethnic diversity in advertisements. There is more Asian representation in Toronto advertising than in NY. I can barely conjure any images in my mind of API representation in public health campaigns, let alone ad campaigns in general, in NYC. (Image above, by Miguel Libarnes)
Miguel Libarnes: Recently, I have been seeing more people of color represented in public health campaigns in New York City but they are rarely Asian or Pacific Islander. Most of the time they are either black or latino which is great but it would be nice to see more API and MENA (Middle East North Africa) folks as well. Visibility is important and health campaigns should be able to appeal to everyone. (Image above, by Miguel Libarnes)
Kuldeep Singh: I do see now more Asian faces in various campaigns, particularly in subway posters, train ads and in other venues in the city than before. Which definitely is important in the multicultural city like NYC. Not only it adds a dimension of their visibility but also makes it the normal. (Image above, by Kuldeep Singh)
2. How do you feel about API representation in gay art in general?
Chin: My answer to your first question would be similarly reflected in this one. Of the gay art that I’ve seen, I do feel that API representation is so rare, that it feels invisible to me. In figurative artwork, I have to actively seek out pictures that highlight asian faces. Art on social media is similar. From my own observations, most of the artists’ work who I’ve seen in in galleries, online, and in social media who make representational “queer art” in the form of photos, drawings, or paintings do not depict API bodies or faces.
Libarnes: When you search for #gayart on social media, it’s mostly topless or nude buff bearded white men. While I don’t think Instagram is the best way to find art, I do think it presents a fairly accurate picture of what’s popular right now. Sadly, APIs are far from it. This shouldn’t come as a surprise though. In a world where the western standard of beauty reigns supreme, it’s no wonder why #gayart lacks diversity. I think there’s plenty of room for improvement and I am happy to see a few local artists breaking the trend. In my opinion, I think it would be refreshing to see queer art that isn’t limited to faces or nude bodies. Yes, visibility is power but I’m personally more interested in seeing how queer art can go beyond that.
Singh: Gay art still to an extent rules the buffed, six pack body types of white or black men. But I do see more nuances here and there on the social media which surely is changing the game. But it is at a slow pace. And I wonder how soon that will change. Also because the global standards of beauty and looks and becoming similar all over which has dictated things to a larger extent.
3. What’s your relationship to PrEP?
Chin: I’ve been taking PrEP daily for about a year or so
Libarnes: PrEP and I were very happy together for about 3 years but we broke up eventually. My boyfriend and I decided to be monogamous so I made the decision to stop taking PrEP. I do think it’s amazing that PrEP exists and if I were in an open relationship I would get back on it.
Singh: Though I maintain a safe sex practice and do not as of now use PrEP, but I know with many of my friends who are on PrEP enjoy its benefits.
4. Why did you say yes to this project?
Chin: Public health especially in the queer asian community is important to me. Much of it has to do with the reasons I’ve expressed in my answers to your questions above. As a gay asian male I feel unrepresented and unseen within the gay community, and because I have some visibility through the commercial art I’ve made, I believe I can use it to help make queer asian men more publicly visible.
Libarnes: I said yes to this project because I think it’s for a great cause. It’s vital that we get the word out there about PrEP and Antiretroviral Therapy so that more people can get the right information. This way, they can make the right decisions for themselves about their sexual health.
Singh: The cause and education is important. And visibility of diverse representations which Apicha wanted resonated with my thought. It gave me a chance thus to add my voice as well.
5. One of the theories of why API people have lower rates of PrEP uptake is the stigma within the community, especially among immigrants? Can you speak to that?
Chin: I can only answer this through my own lived experience of being a gay Chinese immigrant. It’s also hard for me to speak to this because I’ve been out for two decades. But if I think back to when I was first coming out, I’d assume that it would have taken me a while to open up to the idea of taking PrEP because I would have had to assert myself more deeply in my homosexuality. I'm Chinese. My family and I are immigrants. Both of my parents are very traditional, my dad moreso than my mom.
What I remember is being raised in a way where if we didn’t talk about something, then it didn’t exist. And so I wonder if taking this pill challenges that way of thinking and uproots, or subverts that denial. It literally brings the monster into the room and makes the person who is taking PrEP have to deal with their shame and internalized homophobia. I remember it took me years to go for a checkup - to go into a free clinic to get tested for HIV and STI’s because of the stigma that was attached to being gay. I was aware that these services existed but I chose not to go because it wasn’t only that I was afraid that I might have tested positive, but my resistance allowed me to keep my homosexuality at a distance as well.
Libarnes: I can see why there would be stigma around PrEP in conservative or religious immigrant families. As an immigrant myself, my journey from the Philippines to the U.S. at 18 years old wasn’t easy. I ended up distancing myself from my family because I felt pressured to be a certain way, to “tone it down” and hide my “gayness” from everyone. It was tough for a while but things got better eventually once I stood up for myself. Then again, there are conservative people from all cultures both outside and inside the U.S. so I can’t pin it down to just that one issue.
Ultimately, I think that APIs and other people of color have lower rates of PrEP uptake mainly because of our healthcare system. I think people are scared of getting a huge medical bill. For the l longest time, I avoided the doctor as much as possible because I was scared that anything health-related was going to cost me an arm and a leg. I wouldn’t be surprised if other immigrants feel the same way.
Furthermore, I think another big reason why PrEP uptake is low within API and other POC communities is because not enough people know about it yet. Sure, it’s prevalent within LGBTQIA+ circles but I’m not so sure about everyone else. This could mean that men who are vulnerable to HIV but aren’t “out” would miss out on valuable information about PrEP.
Singh: Hesitation may be one reason, as it has to do to a lot with cultural background and upbringing for many. Particularly if I may speak for myself. PrEP is a new player and someone like me is concerned about why pop another pill if I can have a safe and balanced practice, and be within my decided limits of my pleasures. And also how it may effect my body in the long run is another concern. Health insurance bills and how PrEP work with the system, is a later concern for me as of now. But an important one for sure.
About the artists
Marcos Chin: Marcos Chin is an award winning Illustrator whose work has appeared as surface and wall designs, on book and CD covers, advertisements, fashion catalogues, and magazines. He has worked with such companies as MTA Arts for Transit,Neiman Marcus, Fiat, Budweiser, Time, Rolling Stone, The New Yorker, GQ, Sports Illustrated, and The New York Times. Marcos has given lectures and workshops throughout the US and abroad, and currently lives in New York where he teaches Illustration at theSchool of Visual Arts.
Miguel Libarnes: Born in the Philippines in 1989, Miguel Libarnes migrated to California at the age of 18. He graduated from UC Santa Cruz where he received the William Hyde & Susan Benteen Irwin Scholarship and numerous artist grants. He has exhibited in the U.S., Switzerland, and the Philippines. He now lives in Brooklyn, New York where he continues his practice as a mixed media artist focusing on what it means to be a queer Filipino immigrant in the U.S.
Kuldeep Singh: Kuldeep's multidisciplinary art practice is a hybrid system of non-linear narratives in visual art and multi-media performance. It usually invents theatrical situations and hybrid myths surveying breaks in colonial histories as a recurring idea. With his intensive training in the Indian classical dance form of Odissi (an ancient compound system of movement and story telling, gestures and percussive mnemonics) he deconstructs components in acting (and mime), sound/percussive mnemonics and installation design – all as re-arranged fragments, engaging in body politics and social anthropology. The content, primarily, comes from ancient word of mouth stories, classical Sanskrit texts, and extends to contemporary human situations, thus re-morphing timelines. Kuldeep works between New Delhi and NYC.