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Within an LGBTQ movement largely focused on the advancement of marriage equality, artist Jessica Whitbread has chosen to channel her personal experience with HIV into art and activism. The Toronto native and Wesley Mancini artist in residence at the McColl Center for Art + Innovation was diagnosed with HIV in 2002. She has since become a strong advocate for HIV/AIDS awareness, in addition to being “passionate about the intersectionality of issues and feminism,” she says.

Her residency at the McColl is held in conjunction with Re/Presentations of HIV/AIDS, an exhibition of how HIV/AIDS has been represented in contemporary art, at the Van Every/Smith Galleries in Davidson.

Whitbread is known for much more than her art, serving as the global chair for the International Community of Women Living with HIV, founder of the first International Chapter of Young Women, Adolescents and Girls living with HIV, as well as a steering committee member for AIDS ACTION NOW!

Whitbread’s journey living with HIV informed her activism and leadership.

“Activism is where I drew my strength,” she says. “I’m super into talking about the heaviest stuff you can talk about. Sexual privilege is one of my favorites. I like to challenge who has the privilege of being a sexual being. Things like HIV status, body type and gender factor in to that.”

Whitbread says she’s making the most of her residency as an opportunity to push Charlotteans out of their comfort zone around issues of sex and gender. She believes getting people to speak openly about these issues is crucial in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

Jessica Whitbread at an event at the McColl Center for Art + Innovation.  Photo Credit: Matthew Steele/McColl Center
Jessica Whitbread at an event at the
McColl Center for Art + Innovation.
Photo Credit: Matthew Steele/McColl Center

“People don’t even want to talk about things like gender and sexuality being on a spectrum,” Whitbread says. “Let’s make Charlotte more open and exciting and talk about what we’re not talking about.”

In an effort to have open discussions about things unspoken, she has opened her studio at the McColl weekly for “consciousness-raising groups to talk about the issues affecting Charlotte.”

Last month, the artist hosted more than 20 clients of Regional AIDS Interfaith Network’s (RAIN) Empowering Positive Youth program. The group contributed personally designed pieces to a banner she will leave behind when her residency concludes on Nov. 25. She spoke of a recent two-hour conversation she had with RAIN’s executive director, the Rev. Debbie Warren, over tea, saying, “Lesbians are the backbone of the HIV movement and they’re also the forgotten sisters.”

Whitbread has hosted “tea parties” around the world with women who are affected by HIV/AIDS, using them as a vehicle for story sharing and social change.

She will host her “No Pants, No Problem” event on Nov. 21, 10 p.m. at Studio 1212 here in Charlotte. Proceeds from the event go to RAIN to support community outreach and their various programs for people living with HIV/AIDS in the Charlotte area. The event is a pants-optional underwear dance party that will feature installations from local artists and a kissing booth. RAIN will be distributing condoms at the event, as well as offering safe sex and harm reduction education. : :