Art as Protest and Commemoration during the AIDS Crisis of the 1980s.
Warning: This article contains some images that depict sensitive/mature themes.
The AIDS crisis began in 1981, when the first symptoms of the as-yet-unnamed virus manifested in five previously health gay men in Los Angeles. The term AIDS (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome) was first used by the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) in September 1982, and it was four years later that the virus which causes AIDS was discovered and named HIV (Human Immunodeficiency Virus). Yet before detailed scientific study could be done on the disease, it was becoming rapidly apparent that it disproportionately affected gay and bisexual identifying men. In mid-1981 the New York Times ran an article entitled ‘Rare Cancer Seen in 41 Homosexuals’, which spawned the term ‘Gay Cancer’. Later in 1982, four months before AIDS was named by the CDC, the New York Times published another article calling the virus ‘GRID’ (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency Syndrome). The crisis was a huge blow to the gay community, having just entered into a period of personal and sexual liberation as a wave of states decriminalised homosexuality in the 1960s and 70s. What sprung from the epidemic was a wave of LGBTQ activism in the form of organisations, marches, and protest in the form of art and photography as people fought not just for their rights but also their lives. The severity of the crisis increased exponentially throughout the 1980s, with the number of reported cases in the US reaching 100,000 by 1989, and by the end of the decade it was an international problem which reached out beyond just the gay community from which it seems to have sprung.
Art as Protest
The US government was slow to react to the crisis, with Congress passing its first bill specifically to fund research and treatment in May 1983. More prominently, the incumbent President Ronald Raegan avoided the topic, only coming to mention AIDS publicly in 1985 and making his first speech on the crisis in May 1987. As a result, many LGBTQ people who were watching their friends and loved ones succumb to the disease saw the need to force the government into action through protest. As a more traditional form of protest the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) was formed in 1987, who later that year held their first protest on Wall Street. The first safer sex pamphlet was distributed in 1982 by the slightly less orthodox Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, a group of activist drag queens whose drag personas take on the appearance of nuns. This group could be said to typify the kinds of ways art was used as a form of protest, as we shall go on to discuss.
Pink Triangle and SILENCE = DEATH
Perhaps one of the most iconic and well recognisable symbols of this era of gay activism is the pink triangle. Originally used by the Nazis during WWII in order to identify homosexuals and ‘sexual offenders’, the symbol was re-appropriated by the gay community. The symbol was often used in conjuncture with the art movement SILENCE = DEATH which was created by six New York activists in 1987 – Avram Finklestein, Brian Howard, Oliver Johnston, Charles Kreloff, Chris Lione, and Jorge Soccaras. The project, and its slogan, was adopted by ACT UP who created merchandise to hand out at rallies, as shown by the photograph of the back of David Wojnarowicz’s jacket from an ACT UP protest in 1988. The simplicity of the triangle as a representation of the gay community mirrors other iconic logos used in protest, such as the black clenched fist which has represented the African American struggle from the Black Panther movement through to the present day.
Of those artists involved in the SILENCE = DEATH movement, Keith Haring is one of the most well-known. Ultimately dying from AIDS related complications in 1990, he carried the movement’s message and aesthetic in his work. His use of simplified depictions of the human body had a threefold meaning – the figures cover their eyes and ears to represent the movement’s slogan, its simplicity lends itself to reproducibility and therefore accessibility, and the identical nature of each of the figures represents the indiscriminate nature of the disease while also showing how the victims had been stripped of their humanity.
Motifs of Death
In the height of the crisis, while signs of a cure were still some ways away, art by those affected by AIDS took on a dark tone and often heavily featured death as a recurring motif. In the more traditional art world, Marc Lida’s 1983 piece ‘AIDS #5’ depicts the figure of death looming over two men having sex, while Carlos Alfonzo’s more abstract piece from 1988 titled ‘Grief’ conveys the gloomy atmosphere that characterised the period.
The looming spectre of death was also captured vividly in photography of the era. In 1992 fashion brand Benetton, whose advertising sector was then spearheaded by Oliviero Toscani, ran a hugely controversial ad campaign which featured a photograph of gay activist David Kirby on his deathbed. The photo of a severely emaciated Kirby surrounded by his grieving family received severe backlash from AIDS activist who were concerned it would amplify fear of sufferers, not to mention the issues they had with the commercialisation of the crisis. Kirby’s father Bill was quick to defend the ad campaign, commenting. “Benetton is not using us, we’re using Benetton…If that photograph helps someone…then it’s worth whatever pressure we have to go through.” These images represent a community trying to reconcile and fight back against the undeniable fact that throughout the 1980s AIDS, and by extension being a part of the gay community, was a death sentence.
Photography as a positive force
Despite the strongly morbid tone of a lot queer of art in this period, some artists strove to use their tools to present a more positive and optimistic view of the crisis. Gideon Mendel, a South African photographer, was granted access to the Broderip and Charles Bell wards of Middlesex Hospital – the first purpose-built HIV/AIDS unit in the UK. While other photographers, due to a mixture of misinformation and fear, chose to photograph patients through the windows of the ward, Mendel captured images of them up close with their friends, family, and loved ones. Unlike the tears of anguish captured in the Benetton ad, his photographs show intimate moments, men sitting in bed together smiling, embracing and holding hands. Mendel wished to show the humanity not only of the crisis itself, but the gay men who were suffering in the face of rampant homophobia, commenting “It was an act of incredible bravery to allow themselves to be photographed”.
Art as commemoration
The NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt
Other than protest, art also functioned as a way to commemorate those who had died during the crisis. In 1987 Cleve Jones started the AIDS Memorial Quilt project after having thought of the idea two years prior during the annual march to commemorate the death of Harvey Milk. Each quilt was intended to represent one individual who had been lost to AIDS, and measured 3 feet by 6 feet – the size of the typical grave. The layout of the quilts varied from simply bearing the name of the victim to including elaborate designs representing the person’s hobbies, occupation, place of birth and other such additional information. The quilts were then sewn into 12 feet by 12 feet panels so they could easily be displayed together.
In the beginning the project went through many ups and downs. Jones, recounting the night in 1985 when he first described the idea to his friends, says that they questioned whether or not a memorial of this kind would be too morbid. While partially agreeing with his friends, he also saw the healing aspect of memorials, and believed that the homely and familial associations of a quilt would do much to counter the image of AIDS as a product of aggressive gay male sexuality. From the start Jones also knew the quilt had the potential to reach people outside the gay community and he embraced this during the Pope’s visit to San Francisco in which he saw a section of the quilt. Members of ACT UP did not like this new direction as they saw AIDS as intrinsically linked to their gay identity and could not support the interaction between the quilt and what they saw as the head of an entirely homophobic and oppressive organisation. Jones remained firm as responded by saying that he would never restrict participation in the project – to him this was more than just a gay movement.
In a mixture of protest and commemoration, the quilt was first displayed on the National Mall in Washington DC during the 1987 National March for Lesbian and Gay Rights. A total of 1,920 panels were placed in between white walkways allowing visitors to walk among the display, kneel down and touch quilts. The quilts had come from all over the United States. One quilt, commemorating Curt Norrup, was sent along with a note from Michael Lueders describing how Curt was a total stranger, abandoned by his boyfriend and suicidal, whom Michael took in and nursed through his last few months. In the note Michael writes: “I spent 14 hours sewing with a lot of love and needle pricks but it was well worth it. I knew nothing of his life when I took him in and because of that we became good friends. I pray that our short time together provided him some laughter and hopefully some joy.” This one story among thousands captures the essence of the quilt’s meaning – solidarity, family, and community across gender, race, and sexuality.
The art of the AIDS crisis gave people a space to both mourn and celebrate lost loved ones. Aside from the political response, the art discussed above form some of the most enduring images from the crisis, especially the photography which brought the reality of AIDS to audiences outside the gay community. While some of the art remains fixed in time and space, other motifs and ideas continue to act as symbols of commemoration and protest. The pink triangle is still commonly featured during LGBTQ pride events, and the NAMES project has continued to accept memorial quilts to this day.
Much has changed since the height of the AIDS Crisis in the 1980s and 1990s, both medically and in terms of LGBTQ rights. HIV is no longer a death sentence, thanks to the development of medications such as PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis) which can reduce the risk of contracting the HIV virus by up to 92%. The stigma around HIV is also in decline, with many LGBTQ dating apps introducing features which allow users to display their HIV status. While much of the art discussed in this article depicts a suffering community swallowed by mourning and struggling to survive, it is that continued struggle which should be its most appreciated feature. Nearly a generation of gay and bisexual men were lost in the 1980s, but without their sustained fight for survival, alongside the essential work of other LGBTQ people in this decade, the community would not be on the same footing as it is today.
Written by Alice Van-Cliff (Co-Editor-in-Chief)
Centre for Disease Control and Prevention. ‘PrEP’ (website). Updated February 20, 2019. https://www.cdc.gov/hiv/basics/prep.html.
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Jones, Cleve. ‘Prologue.’ In Remembering the AIDS Quilt. Edited by Charles E. Morris III, xi-xxxvi. Michigan: Michigan State University Press, 2011.
Ramer, Andrew. “The Pink Triangle: From Shame to Pride.” The Museum Blog (blog). Contemporary Jewish Museum. April 20, 2017. https://www.thecjm.org/learn_resources/305.
The NAMES Project Foundation. ‘The AIDS Memorial Quilt.’ (website). Accessed February 20, 2019. https://www.aidsquilt.org/about/the-aids-memorial-quilt.
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