Kia LaBeija’s Photographs Tell a Story as Multifaceted as the Artist Herself

Now on view at Fotografiska, Kia LaBeija’s groundbreaking solo exhibition prepare my heart showcases more than just photography. LaBeija is, for lack of a better term, a Renaissance woman: she is a photographer, but also an accomplished dancer and choreographer who reinterpreted Oskar Schlemmer’s Triadic Ballet (1912) for a three-night run at Performance Space back in 2019. She is an outspoken activist, the former Overall Mother of the Royal House of LaBeija, and a writer whose prose features prominently in the Fotografiska exhibition.

The show — LaBeija’s first ever in a museum — is an entrée into her archive, displaying recent work alongside childhood photographs, a letter from her father alongside her mother’s wedding dress. Prepare my heart is at times a gut-wrenching chronicle of the artist’s life as a queer woman of color born with HIV, telling the story of how she lost her mother to the illness at 14 years old.

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Kia LaBeija, “Eleven” (2015), ink jet print on Haunemühle, 24 x 36 inches

“When my mother was diagnosed with HIV in 1993,” LaBeija states in the wall text at the outset of the show, “she planned as best she could for the day she would no longer be with us…. But still, I was not prepared for the day when my father grabbed my hand and said, mom’s gone.” In one striking photograph, which speaks to the milestones of her life, the artist sits in a bright red prom dress, her arm outstretched. Instead of her hand being held by a prom date, however, it is curled into a fist—a doctor is drawing her blood on a hospital bed, looking down at the injection site, while LaBeija gazes ahead, softly yet defiantly. This image is only partially staged, as it was taken at a routine appointment. Her blood is actually being drawn in the photograph; it is as much raw experience as representation.

“Negotiating” (2018), whose title seems to hint at the bargaining stage of grief, is another such image that navigates the complex landscape of living with illness and loss. Through a thick green haze, we see the artist’s blurry reflection in a mirror. The only thing in focus is a bottle of Stribild, an antiretroviral medication for HIV/AIDS. The image is haunting, even startling, when paired with the other works in the show, which tend toward a crisp, well-lit visual aesthetic.

Kia LaBeija, “New York Attitude, Hell’s Kitchen Diva” (1997), inkjet print, 12 x 18 inches

Nonetheless, the exhibition has its moments of levity: in “New York Attitude, Hell’s Kitchen Diva” (1997), LaBeija (then a child) poses with ferocity for the camera, her hand on her hip. Wearing oversized blue gloves and fabulous cat-eye sunglasses, the young girl already carries herself like a performer putting on a show. Such moments round out the selection of photographs, building a narrative arc that is as multifaceted as LaBeija.

At times, Fotografiska’s breezy, social media-ready atmosphere feels incongruous with the complex story that LaBeija tells. Billing itself as a “museum experience for the modern world,” the venue encourages visitors to “Have fun. Stay late. Get deep. Spill your drink.” The space does not invite contemplation: pop music blares from speakers overhead, which can make its exhibitions feel like the end credits of a blockbuster movie. At the same time, the lighting is so low that it can be hard to read the wall text.

While arguably there is a connection to be made between Fotografiska’s club-like environment and the ballroom scene that LaBeija frequented in the past, the presentation fails to do the artist justice, attempting to package her nuanced, soul-baring exhibition as a place to take selfies and “spill your drink,” while maintaining a veneer of cosmopolitanism. LaBeija is a pioneering artist at the forefront of a new, more multidisciplinary wave of photography; ultimately, her voice rings louder and clearer.

Kia LaBeija: prepare my heart continues at Fotografiska (281 Park Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through May 8th. The exhibition was curated by Meredith Breech, Exhibitions Manager, Fotografiska, with the artist.


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