I was intrigued but doubtful when I first read the email from Marc Quinn, a quite well known British Artist, looking for an HIV positive model (on medication). The body of the model would be covered in plaster, creating a cast into which a special wax mixed with the person’s medication would be poured, set and a sculpture created. It was to be part of a series of sculptures of people on life long treatment. The email contained a picture of the first piece for this series. It was a baby: Mark’s son, Lucas, who had a milk allergy. He had to be put on a special milk substitute in order to survive. The white baby in the picture seemed peacefully floating.
But I was doubtful. During the years, here at PW, we have been bombarded with requests from the media for positive women to appear, photographed, made visible. Most of us always refused. I would ask myself: who would see the image? What control would I have on it? What would be the context it would be shown in? What the consequences? Even though all my family and close friends know about my health problems, I would worry. Would my neighbour still let me play with her children, if she knew? What if an ex boyfriend I had lost contact with, saw it? Would he come and look for me to accuse me? What about my current partner, his family, his friends… No matter how open you are, there are still plenty of people related to you who don’t know. What would their reaction be?
Another concern was the way the media treat HIV, even the ‘intelligent’ papers. Most of the time it is so sensationalised, dramatic, almost apocalyptic. I felt sceptical of the use somebody else, with their own agenda, would have made of my portrait. I did a little research on Marc Quinn. One of the works that has made him most popular is ‘Alison Lapper Pregnant’, a portrait of a pregnant disabled woman that will be exhibited on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square later this year. People have already protested at the fact that it is not an appropriate statue for a square celebrating war heroes! But as a woman, I find her more ‘heroic’ then a general on a column! Allison Lapper’s words reported by the BBC website sounded true to me: ‘I regard it as a modern tribute to femininity, disability and motherhood. It is so rare to see disability in everyday life, let alone naked, pregnant and proud.’ I reflected that even positive mothers are still seen as a threat to their babies by mainstream society. The taboo around pregnancy and disability also affects us.
When I went to meet Marc for the first time, I was nervous. As a consequence I got lost in the area around his studio. I was on my bike and I kept circling round and round Old Street unable to take the turn in the right direction. Once I entered the studio, I was late, flushed, sweaty, tired from the cycling and very nervous. Marc, his assistant, Angela and the technician, Steve who make the cast, were all waiting for me. Everybody was very friendly and kind. Marc showed me a sculpture he was using for inspiration, which showed the pose he wanted. It was Ecstasy of Santa Teresa by Bernini. I was taken aback. This sculpture is in my hometown, Rome, in a church not far from my home. It depicts Santa Teresa in mystical ecstasy in an extremely sensual way. It is one of my favourite sculptures. During my bohemian Roman years, I used to stop by often with my scooter. I would sit in the dark and cool church, just looking at it. It is a quite unusual portrait of a female saint, not virginal, but full of sensuality and passion. You could feel her body contracting under the draped robe. She is represented going through a mystical experience very reminiscent of orgasm, while an angel looks on like an accomplice, with a knowing smile. The fact that Marc had chosen that famous sculpture, so familiar to me, helped me overcoming some of my fears. I felt in a familiar territory. We agreed on a day for the cast to be taken.
Up until the day before the casting I had doubts. Not just because of the possible personal consequences. I was wondering if to be portrayed naked in such a sensual fashion would reinforce stereotypes of positive women as overly sexual, as promiscuous, self-indulgent, possibly drug abusers. However, another part of me pushed to come out from hiding and fight invisibility and silence. I wanted to be recognised, everything included, even HIV and medications. I had a desire for my physical presence to overcome many of the feelings HIV had imposed on me – fear, shame and guilt – and dare to be something more. I wanted to say: ‘I have this virus, I take those medications, but there is much more to me than anybody can know.’
I know this is only a drop in the ocean. But I hope by making a further step in the public eye, some of the prejudices around HIV and illness will be challenged. I think it comes at an appropriate time. At the beginning of this year the MP Chris Smith made also his HIV status public. Increasing HIV positive people’s visibility is an important step in challenging stigma and in requesting that our human right of being treated without discrimination is respected. I am painfully aware that for many positive people openness is still impossible. Rejection from loved ones, loss of housing and employment and even violence could be the result.
When I look at the sculpture, I see a woman peacefully asleep, delicate, light and mysterious. I see my body question assumptions of what someone diseased should look like. I hope it will be a reminder to a wider audience that people with HIV are just as human, and therefore as complex, as anybody. We are fully entitled to the right to be treated with love and justice, without shame or guilt.
Silvia April 2005
Marc Quin’s scolpture of me has been bought by the Wellcome Trust and is now on show at The Wellcome Museum.