A new Ohio art campaign aims to increase HIV/AIDS awareness & testing, particularly among Black Ohioans

Acclaimed artist Michael Coppage hopes to challenge perceptions about HIV/AIDS while also spurring viewers to get tested.

HIV and AIDS has been a part of our community since 1980. 

In that span of time, there have been  various programs and interventions designed to reduce and stop the spread of the virus. However, according to recent statistics coming out of Hamilton County, the numbers of new positive cases has increased while the numbers of folx getting tested has decreased. 

Of those statistics, the largest increase in positive tests has been in the 25-34 year old age groups with Black people seeing a 4% increase in new cases.  

In an effort to increase HIV awareness, decrease the number of new positives and increase the number of folx being tested, Hamilton County Board of Health has commissioned a local artist to use his talents to create a campaign to help them meet that goal.  

Michael Coppage is an internationally acclaimed artist whose most recent exhibit is BLACK BOX, a project to positively highlight Black men, which is currently on display with the 21c Hotel in Cincinnati. With THE POSITIVE CAMPAIGN, Coppage hopes to challenge perceptions about HIV/AIDS while also spurring viewers to get tested.

The Buckeye Flame sat with Coppage to discuss his vision for combining art, identity and public health.

I checked out the links you sent me for BLACK BOX. It seems you’re using the same concept for BLACK BOX with THE POSITIVE CAMPAIGN?
MC: Yes, it’s the same concept and similar aesthetic. It’s a simple aesthetic. You have a person, you have a t-shirt that’s one color or another and then you have a word that’s on the t-shirt. You just have to find the right word that will engage the individual in a discourse that’s socially relevant. Whether it’s related to race, marginalization, HIV/AIDS or LGBTQIA. For the purpose of this more recent project, the focus is HIV/AIDS. 

An image from BLACK BOX by Michael  Coppage.

In your description of the BLACK BOX exhibit, you describe using a black t-shirt with black lettering inside a white box on the front of the t-Shirt. The Black lettering represents how Black folx must navigate in white spaces. For the POSITIVE CAMPAIGN, you use a yellow t-shirt with yellow letters inside a red box. What do those colors represent?
The most important color is the red because blood is red and HIV is passed through blood. For me, yellow is a color that represents health. When we learn about colors, we learn they mean different things.  We learn sunshine and flowers are yellow, so for me, yellow represents health.

Part of the concept of BLACK BOX is looking at the use of the adjective Black and how it is associated with negativity, ultimately ending with how it impacts how we view Black males and black people. So how does that concept work with the POSITIVE CAMPAIGN?
The irony is that positive and negative kinda mean the same thing through a lens of stigma. Folx will know that we’re disclosing someone’s HIV status in the project but who that is will be unknown. It could be the person that’s wearing a positive shirt or a negative shirt. The negative shirt will have the colors inverted, a red shirt, with a yellow box, with red letters. We’ll have two or three people with a positive shirt and one with a negative shirt.

My goal is for the viewer to have an epiphany through considering what are they attempting to discover. Are they trying to identifying which person is positive and hopefully have an epiphany of how they may be unconsciously stigmatizing the word HIV as well as the person’s status?

In another part of the project, everyone will be wearing the positive t-shirt because it’s about a mindset rather than HIV status. It’s about an outlook, a sign of solidarity. Much like the COVID vaccine cards and showing them, the t-shirts let folx know that the wearer got tested and that’s a very positive thing regardless of the test result. Ideally, it’ll increase the numbers in Hamilton County getting tested and lowering the infection rates by providing information and connecting them to services.

With the BLACK BOX project, you use QR codes that when scanned, take the viewer to a story of the person wearing the T-shirt.  Will that be a similar piece to the POSITIVE CAMPAIGN?
With the POSITIVE CAMPAIGN, the QR code will be on the outside of the t-shirt.  A person can scan the code and will be taken to pages of information about HIV testing and resources available in Hamilton County Health Department and community partners such as Cincinnati Health Department, Caracole, Equitas and University Hospital.  Also, there will be information that will debunk the myths and stereotypes about HIV.

Will this project be geared towards Black people or a wider target audience?
The county specifically wants to target Black gay men, Black men that engage in high risk sexual behaviors and Black women. However, I want to avoid having HIV viewed as a Black problem so I have a variety of volunteers for the commercial shoot.  This is a public health problem, not a race, ethnicity, gender identity or sexual orientation problem.  The POSITIVE CAMPAIGN should target anyone who is engaging in sexual intercourse. 

Is one of your goals to take the POSITIVE CAMPAIGN statewide?
We’ll have to see.  Right now, it’s in the planning stages, hasn’t gotten off the ground just yet. BLACK BOX has legs, has been seen nationally and internationally so its track record is proven.  If the POSITIVE PROJECT gets that kind of traction, I’m open to it being used by other counties and states.  We’ll just have to see the trajectory once the POSITIVE CAMPAIGN gets off the ground.

Ignite Impact: 

  • To learn more about the BLACK BOX PROJECT, go here.
  • Check out Michael Coppage’s upcoming show in Cincinnati here
  • To find the nearest Ohio HIV/STI testing center to you, go here. Ohio offers free at-home HIV testing to residents and you can go here for more info.

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