"Last Address" AIDS Tribute Walk Honors Queer Harlem Icons

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Photo:  LightField Studios (Shutterstock)
Photo: LightField Studios (Shutterstock)

In a world that is often dim, plagued by death, we are persistently being told to center pleasure and to call in joy, leaving little space for the mourning oftentimes demanded by our own survival. To grieve is to be liberated from grief itself, but where do we go to grieve when there is no remaining occupancy on the inside? How then are we able to free it?

In 2010, filmmaker Ira Sachs felt the weight of grief upon him as he thought about the mentors that he might have had while coming of age as a gay, male artist in the eighties — artists like Keith Haring, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Charles Ludlam whose lives were cut short by the AIDS virus. As a form of elegy, Sachs produced the film, “Last Address,” an 8 minute cinematic collection of exterior images of the last residential addresses of New York City artists who died from AIDS between 1983 to 2007.

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Toni Morrison teaches us that liberation lies within the process of rememory. And rememory requires revisiting.

Alex Fialho, a young curator who had seen Sach’s film shortly after moving to New York, was inspired to visit the sites himself. “Keith Haring’s address at 542 LaGuardia Place, Felix Gonzales-Torres’s address at London Terrace on W. 23rd Street,” Fialho recounts to NPR, “That personal ritual of remembrance really gave me a sense of the lived experience of these artists who I greatly admired.” Wanting to grant others the same opportunity, Fialho used his connections as the (then) programs director for the nonprofit arts organization, Visual AIDS, to partner with New York’s theaters and museums to curate “Last Address” tribute walks. Not only did the walks memorialize the homes of queer artists, but of key AIDS related sites in the city as well.

Fialho’s tribute walks have been hosted annually since 2014, (minus a two year pandemic pause between 2020 and 2021), and have spanned from the East Village to Times Square. This year as the walk returned on Saturday, May 28, there was an intentional pivot mapped onto the plan.

Originally suggested by Black lesbian poet, artist, and activist Pamela Sneed, the “Last Address” walk of 2022 would be held in Harlem. Sneed, whose book, “Funeral Diva,” took home the 2021 Lambda Literary Award for lesbian poetry, recalls all too well the era that called for her presence at more homegoing services than most. Her book gives an account of how often she was requested to speak or perform at funeral services throughout the height of the AIDS crisis, earning her the nickname.

Sneed also recalls the erasure of Black and queer artists from the history of AIDS activism, despite both being at the forefront of the movement, as well as serving as caretakers for the gay men around them living with HIV. Artists like photographer Lola Flash who after moving to New York in the eighties, immediately got involved by attending Act Up demonstrations and taking pictures to spread awareness. She was also notably featured in the 1989, “Kissing Doesn’t Kill” poster which appeared on billboards, buses, and subway stations.

Fialho, Sneed, and Blake Paskal, who’s both affiliated with Visual AIDS and the Studio Museum in Harlem worked to collaboratively produce this year’s walk. They were additionally assisted by Black LGBTQ+ elders including activist Antionettea “Dreadie” Etienne, and ballroom legends Luis Ortiz, and Lee Soulja Simmons to identify notable people and historical landmarks. After kicking off with a screening of “Last Address,” at Maysles Documentary Center, the doorstep tributes commenced, beginning with an introduction at each stop, led by someone who was close to, or highly engaged with the person or place being highlighted. The tour featured stops at the Elks Lodge, of “Paris is Burning” fame, the Lenox Lounge, and the last address of Black gay writer B. Michael Hunter. A full assemblage of archival materials and other resources can be found on the Studio Museum of Harlem website’s Last Address Tribute Walk: Harlem resource page.