Art Heals Festival Aims to Eliminate HIV, Mental Health Stigma Through Artwork

Black, queer-led event highlights healing creative space

Through the lens of art, perspectives both similar and strange to us become understood.

At the upcoming Art Heals Festival, a multidisciplinary arts festival put on by local mental health awareness organization Whatsinthemirror, creators living with HIV or mental illness are given space to communicate their unique perspectives through their creative work in hopes of eliminating the stigma attached to their situations.

Art Heals Festival 2021 (Photo by Tia Boyd)

The idea for the event originated in 2019 with founder and Executive Director of Whatsinthemirror Tarik Daniels’ own HIV-positive diagnosis. At the time, he says he was flummoxed by how far medicine had come in terms of HIV prevention and treatment in comparison to most folks’ regressive attitude toward theirs and others’ status. “I'm still seeing people of color, young guys who encounter sex with other young guys, passing away,” Daniels’ recalls. “And then I had ran into an old friend from back home that expressed [they were] living with HIV but didn't want to get on medication because they just didn't feel like it was for them.” Wanting to use his own experience living with HIV as well as incorporating his experience in the nonprofit sector (Daniels currently works with ASHwell running their peer support program), he applied for and received a grant from PrEP pharmaceutical giant Gilead.

Thus, Art Heals Festival was born, and now enters its third annual edition. While the main attraction will be the artistic displays from this year’s Southern Arts Collective Cohort, there will also be music from queer rapper Theo Love and hip-hop artist BabiBoi as well as performances from ballroom family House of Lepore. Daniels adds that this year’s festival will also feature a virtual space on Sunday, with performances available for folks who want to avoid crowded spaces due to the COVID or monkeypox concerns.

Theo Love (Photo by Tia Boyd)

Another element of this year’s festival will be the BlaQ Awards, which celebrate stand-out members of the local queer Black communtiy. This year’s honorees include Sha’Niyah Baltimore and Tia Boyd, among many others, all of whom folks look to as icons, leaders, and trustworthy community members. While none of those being honored do the work in hopes of being spotlighted, “it is nice to be seen for the things that you are doing … [and] get together to love on each other,” says Daniels.

Creating a space of Black and queer safety is also a goal of the Art Heals festival, as few spaces are available for those in the community to discuss tricky topics like untreated HIV or suicide without encountering stigmatization. While Daniels does say the festival doesn’t claim to be the only place offering those discussions, “you just need spaces that [are] really providing an opportunity to reflect on the things that impact our community that could be taboo in other spaces.”

Art as a way to ease discussions and develop understandings of those taboo subjects is what drives the festival and Daniels’ work. “All of my programming has always been rooted in using art to heal,” Daniels says, “to express yourself, to tell your story to kind of get to that next place.” Hearing the stories of those living with HIV in their own voice makes for the most impactful messaging. This year’s artists have brought those stories in a multitude of formats from videos to photography, dance to poetry, and much more. “Art has always been a vehicle for me to see the humanity in people and the humanity in stories that I wouldn't come across in my day to day life,” Daniels explains. “So I feel like using art as a vehicle for this festival is the same: to bring awareness to people who maybe haven't come across these stories, but they go look at a play, or they go sit and listen to some music and they become a little bit more knowledgeable. Because, you know, art moves us in that way.”

Art Heals Festival will take place over Sept. 30-Oct.2, Fri.-Sun. It is free and open to the public, and will be held at Atelier 1205. Find more information about the festival as well as Whatsinthemirror?’s mission at

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LGBTQ, Whatsinthemirror?, HIV, BlaQ Awards, Art Heals Festival, Tarik Daniels

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