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Each year the Visual AIDS community gathers together for  of the artists and individuals who have been integral in shaping and promulgating the identity and mission of Visual AIDS. This year, for the 12 th annual Visual AIDS Vanguard Awards (VAVA), Visual AIDS honored visual artists Zoe Leonard, Eric Rhein, and archivist Sur Rodney (Sur), and a special recognition to former Visual AIDS board member Brice Brown.

VAVA 2017 from photobooth4party on Vimeo.

The event was held at the beautiful Three Sixty in Tribeca, with stunning views of the city. Complementing such a fantastic view was the DJ set by artist Ryan McNamara, which provided a soundtrack for the night that began with a silent auction of many incredible artworks, including some artworks made by Visual AIDS’ own Artist+ Members.

The evening's host Morgan Bassichis welcomed everyone and introduced the first stunning performance of the evening by artist and RuPaul Drag Race Season 9 contestant Sasha Velour lip syncing for her life to Shirley Bassey's cover of "My Way."  Flowers were thrown on stage with a round of applause.  

Douglas Crimp introduced the first Visual AIDS Vanguard Award honoree of the evening, his good friend, Zoe Leonard - who gave a moving speech about how the beginning of her career in NYC during the AIDS crisis empowered her to use her voice and art to bring awareness and spur activism in the face of dread and loss, as she said "Through adversity we created community. In the middle of a horror show, we established a movement...In the midst of genocide, we made space to honor our people". She then prompted guests to shout out the names of people, artists, and loved ones who were taken away by AIDS, so that they would not be forgotten. 

Artist Lorraine O'Grady then introduces her friend of 37 years, Sur Rodney (Sur) who accepted his VAVA wearing a blond wig that used to belong to Candy Darling. Sur spoke about leaving his position as co-director of Gracie Mansion in 1988 to care of friends living with HIV/AIDS and their artistic legacies. Sur asked "Why are discussions around HIV/AIDS still seen as something to avoid while there are more people living with HIV today than ever?" He also thanked Visual AIDS for its programming and for building "a space for growing community."

Former Visual AIDS Executive Director Barbara Hunt McLanahan painted a picture of Eric Rhein's work and life before presenting him with the Visual AIDS Vanguard Award. Eric spoke graciously about receiving the award—named after Visual AIDS co-founder William Olander and presented annually to an artist living with HIV—stating "Surviving with HIV and AIDS is extremely intricate. There have been times I was almost lost. And for me, within this is the gift of my longstanding relationship with Visual AIDS." Eric went all to say that "Nothing validates my survival more than writers and curators younger than I relating to our history, giving it contemporary context."

Visual AIDS Board President Pat Owens recognized the inspiring guidance of former Board Member Brice Brown. Pat also announced Esther McGowan as the new Visual AIDS Director starting in July, as Nelson Santos, current Executive Director leaves Visual AIDS after 17 years. Dozens of Visual AIDS Artist+ members joined artist Frederick Weston on stage, singing a final serenade to Nelson. 

The evening ended with a head turning performance (literally) by Narcissister, and a rock n' roll anthem by Kembra Pfahler & the Girls of Karen Black. Guests were on their feet cheering! 

Thank you to all of the honorees, presenters and performers for making this such a special evening! See you next year for the 13th annual Visual AIDS Vanguard Awards.

A special thanks everyone who can out, and our wonderful Co-Chairs, Benefit Committee, and volunteers - including the Imperial Court of New York - for making this event possible. We are grateful to our Art Auction Co-Chairs Steed Taylor and Kris Nuzzi, all the artists who donated work to our auction, and our auction partner Artsy. We also thank our raffle prize donors, Lucas Michael, Scooter LaForge, Studmuffin NYC, Seagull Salon, the NoMad Hotel and Eric Rhein. Our sincere gratitude goes to X-ing Design for the invitation and program design; Ligorano/Reese for the VAVA Award design, and Sherwood Florist for the beautiful flowers. Our appreciation goes to M•A•C Cosmetics Global Visual Merchandising Team, Jerome Jakubiec, Kyle Brincefield, Lisa Chamberlin, Johnson & Johnson, Andrew Zobler, Peter Cramer, Johanna Fateman, Shaun Surething, Tim Tareco, Johnny Velour, and Tony Zanetta for their time, energy and support. A special thanks to our event photographers Steven Rosen Photography, Lola Flash and Photomatonchic. Lastly, we are grateful to our event sponsor, Gilead.

For more:

See event photos by Steven Rosen Photography here

View and download more photobooth pictures by Photomatonchic.

More pictures by Lola Flash on Facebook.

Watch videos and see more pictures on our Instagram.

POZ magazine coverage of VAVA VOOM

TheBody.com article by Charles Sanchez

About the honorees Eric Rhein, Zoe Leonard, Sur Rodney (Sur) and Brice Brown.

ABOVE PHOTOS BY PHOTOMATONCHIC