There is a moment in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s 2013 video “I, You, We: Art & AIDS” when Sue Coe almost cries. Coe is holding the original sketches from her series “AIDS Suite” and describing her time in the AIDS ward at the University of Texas at Galveston.
Coe, a self-described ‘visual journalist,’ has spent her career documenting the marginalized: people living with HIV/AIDS, incarcerated women, and animals in slaughterhouses. She has illustrated for the New Yorker and the New York Times and published several books of her work. Her images are often dark, violent and semi-apocalyptic.
Yet it would be a mistake to say that Coe’s work is violent for the sake of violence. On the contrary, it’s driven by an overwhelming sense of compassion. This is clear from the moment in “I, You, We: Art & AIDS,” and it was clear to me when I spoke to Coe about political art, HIV/AIDS, and animal rights on the night before her exhibition opened at the Yale Whitney/Cushing Medical Library.
WKND: I want to start by asking how you became involved with Eric Avery, the doctor who invited you to University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston to create the 1993 series “The AIDS Suite.”
Coe: I met Eric while he was in a refugee camp in Somalia. He was surrounded by hundreds of thousands of people who were starving to death. We got to be friends based on [the fact that] he is not indifferent, and I am not indifferent to all the unnecessary suffering that is going on.
[Eric] was one of the first openly gay psychiatrists in Texas during the time when the pandemic was just terrible because everyone died — really, everyone died because it was before the antivirals. He was always pretty brave, although he wouldn’t say that himself. He invited me there [to Texas], because a sketchbook is like a pencil; it’s not threatening to people. You couldn’t go into what was a hospice in those days with a camera because of patient privacy, and also because [a camera] is very threatening. But you could go in with a sketchbook because people could see what you are doing, and the process was not concealed. For people with not much time left, it was nice for them to talk about their lives and what was happening to them.
WKND: What was your experience, not only talking to the men in the ward, but also talking to the doctors, the nurses, the lovers and the caregivers?
Coe: Back in those days, you had to be immediate family to get into the ward, so one of the horrible things was that longtime lovers were not allowed in. Of course, doctors smuggled them in. But a lot of the parents of those very young patients denied that the men were gay and denied that they had HIV. So it was a lot about bringing the family into that unit and helping them deal with the reality, which took a long time.
Many times when you’re talking to people with HIV, they are brave and they are different, and they know they are different. In a different society that does not value profit over life, they would be very creative, bold people. But because there was no choice for them, they were sacrificed in way, especially in the beginning of the pandemic, when just to work in those wards meant that you could get infected.
What I learned was how people have such incredible courage. Something else I learned was that you carry on your life in your mind even though you know this is a death sentence, that you could be dead in a few days. You’re worried if your dog has been fed and if it is still in your apartment. This is what concerned you, what would concern you anyway. There is something so poignant about human beings that way. You know that they are concerned for other people or their animals or a promise they made to someone that they can’t complete.
WKND: Moving from “The AIDS Suite” to the pieces you did in 2006 about HIV-positive women who are incarcerated: How did you become involved with that project? What had changed for you as an artist since making “The AIDS Suite”?
Coe: The study group was chosen because the lead doctor within the prison system wanted to understand not just recidivism rates, but would these women go back to the high-risk lifestyle which got them in that situation? With HIV, [the questions are]: Are they going to share needles and straws? What level of education and support do they need not to return to that life? They were chosen to be exactly equal representatives of the population: so I believe it was four Anglo women, four Spanish-speaking women and four African-American women. And they all had to understand before the interviews that there cannot be any real studies within the prison system because the interest of power contradicts; they had to understand their rights …
WKND: They had to understand the power dynamic —
Coe: Yes, because they are extremely vulnerable in that situation. It is appalling. When you leave prison, you have no driver’s license, you have no cell phone, you are given $40 and some used clothes. They’re told to show up at a clinic, but that clinic could be miles away and these women don’t have money. I couldn’t see how anyone could survive it unless they have massive family support, because the social support is not there. Each one of these women would need 20 caseworkers on them, all the time, to get this medication, to make sure they’re drug-free, to give them work. It was absolutely impossible. They had no education; not one of those women went to college. Imagine their potential; they were so strong, so creative, to survive a life on the street. The expectations for their lives were so low. It’s diabolical when you see this happen to human beings, when they are not cherished.
WKND: For both of these series, what did you feel your role was as an artist of social and political pieces? Did you feel that you were making an intervention?
Coe: Let’s call it visual journalism. Your job is to expose contradictions. You cannot resolve it. You can’t give society answers. The answers have to come from society. What you can do is show the information the way you perceived it. But that is not done [often] enough. Not only can we not resolve it, we have so little actual direct reporting on anything. Because it is not profitable. So obviously, to me, the crime is economics, not individual people.
WKND: How would you define the line between political art and propaganda? Is there a strict line?
Coe: [Laughs] Propaganda is not a bad word. Propaganda just means to propagate ideas; there is a difference between propaganda art and reportage work. I do both, but there is a big difference. If I’m going into a slaughterhouse, I’m drawing what I see. And it has to be accurate and I will make it so. I’m not telling you to go vegan because I’m in a slaughterhouse. That’s up to you. Now I have done work that says go vegan, but that’s not to be mingled up with [my slaughterhouse pieces].
When you do social and political work — the point I’m trying to make to myself — is that it’s coming from a movement of people, not from the artist. I met this wonderful photographer, she is just a kid, 18 or 19, and she was doing Black Lives Matter, covering every demonstration. I could see right away that her work was brilliant, absolutely brilliant, and that she was coming from that struggle, and her art reflected the struggle. She was a part of it, but she was recording it.
You can’t just call yourself a political artist because you feel like it, you’re a political artist because you’re part of a whole group that’s resisting. And out of that social-justice movement comes the art, comes the poetry, comes the songs, comes the literature.
WKND: Ok, I do want to talk about the slaughterhouses.
Coe: The animal part is a social justice movement that has not happened yet. You know because animals are trivialized, art or people that care about animals are trivialized too. So that social-justice movement is just at the beginning. I think if it happens as fast as gay rights, then it will be absolutely thrilling. But it’s got to happen. And it’s got to happen very soon.
WKND: I read that you grew up in England, close to a slaughterhouse. What was your first moment where you said, “This is something that I need to report on, that I need to witness?”
Coe: I grew up in literally the ruins of World War II. It still wasn’t built up; it was rubble. We went to school in tin huts. I kept asking my parents, “How could this happen? How could this happen?” And they said, “We didn’t know. We didn’t know Jewish people were being murdered.” And then I just put it together somehow and I said, well there are persons being murdered next door to us — we still don’t know. So if we can ignore screaming all night from the slaughterhouse, what else can we ignore?
What I want to do with the work, what I always say, it’s a cliche: I want the viewer to look through my eyes, not into my eyes. A lot of artwork you see, you are being asked to look at the artist. I don’t want you to look at the artist, I want you to look at what I saw, so you can see it too. It’s like re-traumatizing the viewer, so they can experience it.
This interview has been edited for flow and clarity.
Contact JOSHUA TRANEN at firstname.lastname@example.org .