In Conversation with Luna Luis Ortiz: Three Decades of Fierce Artistry and Activism
Luna Luis Ortiz is a Latinx artist/activist and a mighty force who has been empowering QTPOC youth in New York City for over thirty years. His provocative photography, portraits of friends and peers, show young queer individuals of color through a vibrant, sensual, and vulnerable lens. In his self-portraits Luna is radiant and revelatory with his emotions within very intimate settings. Luna's poignant photographs and compelling story have been featured in The New York Times, The London Observer, The Advocate, among others, and he has spoken about his HIV experience at NYU, Cornell University, Yale University, etc In 2015 he was awarded the William Orlander VAVA Voom Award by Visual AIDS, has been recognized by the City of New York and various New York City Mayors on numerous occasions. I speak with Luna about his tremendous advocacy, art as a tool, and current projects.
Gallery Gurls: Your photographs in the new exhibit AIDS at Home: Art and Everyday Activism at The Museum of the City of New York, seem incredibly personal, glamorous, and autobiographical. Can you talk more about their significance?
Luna Luiz Ortiz: I think my photographs in the Museum of the City of New York exhibition show what my photography and style are about. They are personal because I mostly photograph people I love or care about, they are glamorous because the people I love and care about all seem to have a sense of confidence that comes right out of them in photographs and they are definitely autobiographical, because with photography I capture the very essence of the person and what they might be going through at the time I shot them. Each image has a story without words and that’s the beauty of photography. My photographs in this show are all from the early to mid '90s and at the time AIDS was destroying everyone around me. I was photographing my friends because I was trying to keep them close to me; I needed to remember them before anything happened to them. We all lived with this fear of death so we were all desperately trying to live a lifetime in a year. It was exhausting.
"I was photographing my friends because I was trying to keep them close to me; I needed to remember them before anything happened to them."
I read that you started The Luna Show on Youtube to move beyond the 'Paris is Burning' narrative and tackle deeper issues in the QTPOC community. How has that experience been?
True, I started The Luna Show on YouTube because I was tired of the stigma attached to people in the ballroom voguing scene. I got tired of people thinking that we slept all day and only woke up to go vogue at a ball. Although that is the reality to very few ballroom personalities it’s not true to the overall ballroom. I know professionals that are a part of the ball scene and I wanted to share these stories with people. In ballroom we have a little bit of everything and everyone. It was fun collecting stories from the icons, legends, statements and stars of the ballroom.
Activism meets performance in Vogue Knights, which you co-founded with Jack Mizrahi, what impact do you think Vogue Knights has had on millennials now getting into house/ballroom culture?
Vogue Knights was a party that was needed at the time. We needed a space where we can come together on a weekly basis and celebrate each other. Vogue Knights was the only voguing party you needed. The idea behind Vogue Knights was connecting the elders with the new children from the voguing scene, a form of mentorship in the name of performance and dance. Vogue Knights became so successful that everyone wanted to know about voguing worldwide. There were folks from other countries visiting NY just to attend a Vogue Knights party. I think the party helped change the voguing scene into an international sensation thanks to clips on YouTube, Facebook and Instagram. We had wonderful DJs like MikeQ and Byrell the Great. We had great commentators and of course we had great voguing superstars. We also had celebrities making cameos like Rihanna, Robert Pattinson, FKA Twigs, Queen Latifah, Janelle Monae, Olivier Rousteing and many others folks from the design, art and entertainment world. Vogue Knights was its own world. Even with a Hollywood personality in the room the real superstars were the voguers. It was our world. At Vogue Knights we also looked out for the community, we had HIV testing, STD screening and a Health and Wellness mobile van parked outside so people could take care of their health. Connections were made so people can take better care of their health and life. We had GMHC and the Callen-Lorde Community Health Center providing health and wellness services. We’re now in our seventh year, but we don’t know what the future looks like for Vogue Knights. Voguing is an art form.
"Vogue Knights was a party that was needed at the time. We needed a space where we can come together on a weekly basis and celebrate each other. Vogue Knights was the only voguing party you needed."
When I was infected with HIV in 1986 at the age of 14, there was nothing I could do or places I could go for support. I was told I would die by the time I was 16 because the reality was people were not living long with HIV. I remember that photography was the only thing I had at the time that made me feel better. I started photography by taking self-portraits so I could leave images of myself for my family before I died. I was creating self-portraits as a form of comfort and joy. I eventually found the Hetrick-Martin Institute in 1988 and I met people that taught me how to survive. It was at Hetrick-Martin that I was given a voice and I remember that once I found that voice I was everywhere talking about youth and HIV, and slowly becoming the face of the epidemic. It became my life’s work to support youth living with HIV or help keep them HIV negative. Visual AIDS helped shape me as an artist. I was in awe discovering that my photographs and art were an act of activism, again with no words just faces. There is power in an image. GMHC to me is the KING of HIV/AIDS services, GMHC was the first AIDS service organization working here, and today I'm surrounded with such history and amazing co-workers, and supporting youth and young adults of color is the best thing in my life. Everyday I get to help people survive and I help young people think about their lives and future. Then you throw the annual Latex Ball in the mix and it’s the cherry on top of the cake. The Latex Ball attracts people from all over the world, it is a community event and a health fair, people get HIV tested, we get to think about sexual health and be glamorous at the same time, how amazing is that? For 31 years I have been living with something I was supposed to die from at the age of 16, and I survived it and I believe that we all have a purpose on this great earth and I found that calling at the age of 17. GMHC, Hetrick- Martin Institute and Visual AIDS are 3 agencies that do amazing work that is needed in the world. Even in today's political climate we need them more than ever.
" I was in awe discovering that my photographs and art were an act of activism, again with no words just faces. There is power in an image."
What coming up for you? What can we expect?
What is coming up for me is my 45th birthday and I’m looking forward to all the next chapters in my life. I am very excited about the recent interest in my art and photography. I’ve been meeting some great people who have been supporting my process. I have so many images that so many people never get to see. I want to exhibit my work more. It’s been all a learning experience putting together work for exhibitions. I am working on some book projects and I want to focus more on my creativity and create more work. I want to continue to do awesome social marketing campaigns at GMHC and I just want happiness in my world. We all have a voice and the opportunity to change things in this world and I encourage everyone to help move us forward. We all want love, we all want happiness, so lets create a world filled with love and happiness.
"We all want love, we all want happiness, so lets create a world filled with love and happiness. "
Follow Luna Luis Ortiz on Instagram: @lunalens