WhatsintheMirror? Kicks Off Virtual Art Heals Festival

Four-day fest uses art to help end HIV and mental health stigma

Tonight the first-ever virtual Art Heals Festival kicks off with the mission to advocate and raise awareness about HIV and mental health stigma.

A project of Austin nonprofit WhatsintheMirror?, the four-day fest spotlights art dedicated to elevating visibility of people living with HIV and/or mental health conditions. Programming includes a tribute to the late musician Brenden “Chameleon King” Foster from Foster’s sister, artist and activist Queen Deelah; the premiere of Kind Clinic’s short film “Thrive;” and tonight’s opening keynote from Jasmin Pierre, the founder of “The Safe Place,” a mental health app geared toward the Black community.

The fest is also premiering the workshop version of local playwright and WhatsintheMirror? founder Tarik Daniels’ new play, Schoolboy, a one-man show about a young Black queer man balancing home life and ballroom life. We spoke with Daniels to hear more about the fest's mission centering art as a means of creating healing justice.

Courtesy of Tarik Daniels

Austin Chronicle: Where did the idea for the Art Heals Festival come from?

Tarik Daniels: It came from a collaboration that I did with the Gilead COMPASS Initiative and healing justice training I did with them last year. As a person living with HIV and an artist, I really wanted to create a space around art that centered people living with HIV and mental health.

AC: For readers who are unfamiliar with a healing justice framework, how would you explain it?

TD: It's a community approach to addressing racial injustices to move forward. We come together as a community but we center the systems that are in place so we can actually have a solution to move forward or make things better. It's really centering the racial disparities of marginalized people.

AC: When taking that framework and combining it with the arts, how do they complement each other?

TD: For me, as a writer, I do believe that art has the potential to change people’s mindset or impact how we think the world moves. I always thought outside of just political events art needs to reflect the world we want to see. When you have art that's not creating the world we want to see I feel like it leaves a lot of gaps in how we are as a culture.

Our goal is to use art to advocate and bring awareness to HIV and mental health stigma.

AC: Why is addressing that stigma so critical right now?

TD: Our festival commemorates Southern HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, which happened on August 20. The reason why we have Southern HIV/AIDS Awareness Day is because the South represents 56 percent of all new HIV cases. The South now is facing the greatest burden of HIV and deaths in the U.S. than any other region. It's really not because of medical advances. We have PrEP; we have PEP. ... The thing that's really stopping the advancement of ending HIV is stigma. Stigma represents the biggest barrier that we as a community have to address because people are dying in silence. Six out of 10 Black men who sleep with men will have HIV, according to the CDC.

WhatsintheMirror? founder Tarik Daniels (Courtesy of Tarik Daniels)

AC: What are some of the solutions to ending stigma around HIV and mental health conditions?

TD: HIV is still looked at as this deadly virus, right. You don't see a lot of images of people [living with HIV] actually living healthy lives. ... Visibility is huge. ... That’s why we lead [Art Heals Festival] with the involvement of those living with HIV; from myself, from the artists, from members of the organizations, everyone, whether out loud or silently, have been able to contribute to the festival in some kind of way.

To really tackle mental health, you have to tackle mental health at intersects. For example, the way that you tackle mental health when addressing women is different; how you address mental health with heterosexual people, queer people, trans people is all different. That’s why I created our project around the intersection of mental health and HIV, because we can't do this general approach around what mental health is because it's not the same for everybody. ... People with HIV have a higher risk for mental health conditions than those who do not have HIV.

AC: Why is the Art Heals Festival important for where we are right now?

TD: With the healing justice approach, the festival is acknowledging where we are in America around the racial injustices, the health disparities; those are things that as we move on that can't be denied. ... I feel like now we’re at a critical point that we can really start talking specifics. With the healing justice framework you're allowed unapologetically as a community to look and find solutions to things that we’re talking in silos about.

In 2020 it’s like you have nothing to lose. We’re in a pandemic; there’s civil unrest, so now's the time to really be unapologetic about changing the status.

Art Heals Festival runs August 27-30. Find the full lineup and register for events at www.whatsinthemirror.org.

WhatsintheMirror? launched the Art Heals Connect to Care initiative last month which connects people of color living with HIV in Austin to free mental health services. Apply at www.whatsinthemirror.org.

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Art Heals Festival, Tarik Daniels

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