The term "only your hairdresser knows for sure," has taken on a whole new meaning in Columbia, S.C., where cosmetologist DiAna DiAna offers AIDS education to clients who routinely turn simple dye-jobs into confessions of sexual exploits and dreaded fears.
In fact, what began in 1986 as DiAna's modest attempt to educate her "middle-class black clientele that black folks get AIDS," has evolved into a community-based, nonprofit organization with an artsy spin: the South Carolina AIDS Education Network.
Run by the soft-spoken DiAna and Bambi Sumpter, who has a Ph.D. in public health, the network differs from most AIDS organizations because it operates out of a beauty shop and offers video screenings, performances, and musical skits to get its message across to clients trapped beneath dryers and misinformation.
The unorthodox approach appealed to LACE's newly appointed video coordinator, Adriene Jenik, who says she brought the dynamic duo to L.A. to "inaugurate a new period where LACE begins working more actively with artists of color."
"LACE is committed to redefining its art community and challenging old perceptions about LACE being too white and inaccessible," says Jenik. "That will necessitate showing work outside of LACE."
As part of what executive director Roberto Bedoya sees as LACE's "new direction," LACE will screen Ellen Spiro's "DiAna's Hair Ego" tonight at 8:30 at Jewel's Catch One--a disco in L.A.'s black community. (L.A.'s International Gay & Lesbian Film & Video Festival also sponsors the event.) Proceeds benefit the network and Rue's House, a South Central AIDS hospice.
Spiro, a New York City media artist, provides an intimate portrait of DiAna's beauty shop where a condom display is as natural as a basket of curlers. Afterwards, DiAna and Sumpter plan to stage a performance to encourage the club's gay and straight, black and Latino habitues to talk about safe sex.
"Video is an important component for artists trying to adopt a more activist role in their communities," Jenik says. "It isn't site specific yet is reproduceable; it can enter people's homes yet it can also travel to diverse venues, crossing ethnic boundaries.
"Video democratizes art so that people like DiAna who feel a burning need to make a statement can be effective and discover their artistic power outside of institutions."
Indeed, the network receives no government funding and is supported by DiAna's business. DiAna says that last year she acted in an advisory role to Columbia's Health Department, but resigned when she saw that the "officials adopted tame AIDS education my community couldn't relate to."
"The most challenging issue in AIDS is how to speak in people's own idioms," Sumpter adds.
"We've made parents realize that if they wish to avoid talking to their children about straight or gay sex, their children could die. Now churches invite us to speak and demonstrate our safe-sex kits to the teen-agers."
While DiAna scoffs at being called the media artist of the future, she admits that she would use any strategy to get her point across. " 'Just Say No' " speeches do little to alter clients' behavior," she says.
"Blacks are one of the fastest growing AIDS populations in the nation," she adds. "Most women with AIDS in America are black. I tell the couples who see me that just because they are married doesn't mean that they should be so trusting to abandon safe sex."
Sumpter says that there are few places in South Carolina besides the beauty shop to go for candid AIDS education. "There is no anonymous testing in the whole state and people are routinely quarantined," she adds. "Yet (the network) is attacked by politicians who say we are promoting promiscuity."
Phill Wilson, training director for the National Task Force on AIDS Prevention, who is based in L.A., argues that Los Angeles County has "similarly failed to address the specific education needs of people of color." He offers safe sex seminars throughout L.A., and adds that SCAEN's creative model can be inspirational.
Where did DiAna acquire her fascination with AIDS and art?
"It just happened," she says, nonchalantly. "I found out that it's not so hard to try and keep a few people from dying while you're trying to get through your own life. If you do it with style, you might actually make a lasting impact."