As we continue to navigate in the United States both an ongoing health pandemic and an epidemic of racism, public health officials and media outlets are bombarding us with conflicting advice about how to protect our wellbeing. The research and policies related to these recommendations, however, often fail to address racism as a health problem too. To offer some insights for processing our current reality under masks, (Un)masking Health: Counter Perspectives asks a seemingly straightforward question: What is health?
While North American and Western European societies have traditionally considered health as a benevolent state of being free from illness, (Un)masking Health examines it as a contested arena embedded in exclusionary ideologies of race, gender, sexuality, ability, and class. The exhibition includes a range of artworks, from the 1960s to today, in the collection of the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum in dialogue with archival ephemera from Washington University Libraries’ Special Collections. In addition to scrutinizing notions of what a healthy body is—and according to whom—(Un)masking Health also invites us to reconsider the role that historical and contemporary grassroots movements, including the ongoing AIDS movement and the Movement for Black Lives, have had in connecting issues of health and social justice.
Works by Diana Guerrero-Maciá, Sol Mednick, and Bruce Davidson ruminate on commodified body images and their ties to whiteness, fitness, and racial stereotypes. In the work of Gran Fury, Jenny Holzer, Bob Hansman, and charles ryan long from the 1980s to the present, focus is placed on the role of public art in the ongoing AIDS movement, demonstrating passionate engagements for queer wellbeing amid gross governmental negligence. Links are also drawn to the legacy of the Civil Rights movement during the 1950s and 1960s and its demands to protect disenfranchised Black life in the contemporary work of artists including Glenn Ligon and Willie Cole.