Kia LaBeija self portrait
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March 2, 2022
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Living as a queer HIV-positive women of color in New York: focus on Kia LaBeija

Expressing herself through voguing, photograph, film, collage, and more, Kia La Beija is a multifaceted artist. The New York-born artist was also none other than the reigning Overall Mother of the House of LaBeija, the iconic drag family founded by Crystal LaBeija and Lottie LaBeija in 1972. With her current first solo exhibition at Fotografiska New York, Kia LaBeija is an artist to look out for.

The work of Kia LaBeija is greatly influenced by her experience growing up in New York as a queer HIV-positive woman of color. Her mom, Kwan Bennett, was an AIDS activist that passed away in 2004 due to AIDS-related illness. Her loss shaped Kia LaBeija’s art, as well as her background attending rallies with her as a child. It made her realize the importance of representation for HIV-positive people, especially children born with HIV. In parallel to her artwork, she speaks frequently in public on the subject of HIV/AIDS.

With her art, especially voguing and self-portraits, Kia LaBeija aims to empower HIV-positive people through a beautiful and powerful representation. If she is no longer active in the Ballroom community, her experience was developmental. The support and inspiration it gave her still make it a core of her work.

"I consider myself an image-maker using photography, film, and collage. A performance artist utilizing dance, movement, and acting. And a writer, poet, and storyteller. I like to blur the lines between the ways I create. I see my photographs as performance and poetry all in the same” - Kia LaBeija, Interview with Papermag

Through all these supports, Kia LaBeija explores family, community, politics, and identity with strength and sensibility. Alongside 30 years of archival material, a lot of her art is currently exhibited in Fotografiska New York until May 8. ‘prepare my heart’, her first solo exhibition, is a tribute to her mother. Pictures, letters, self-portraits, and poetry merge in a touching autobiographical display. One of the displayed bodies of work, a series of photographs, is particularly poignant: words are projected on bare skin, words spoken by some of Kia LaBeija’s exes. ‘I risked my life for you’ emphasizes the emotional and psychological abuse women living with HIV experience in their relationships. ‘she knows and she loves me even more’, on the other hand, shows the unconditional love and support of her current partner.

Immerse yourself in Kia LaBeija’s photography by scrolling below, and if you’re in the New York area, don’t forget to pass by 281 Park Avenue before May 8!


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