Portraying People Living with HIV: Art as Activism in the Age of AIDS (c.1987-1994) 

 

Paul Sendziuk

 

Douglas Crimp's call for artists to become the vanguard in the fight against homophobic and stigmatising representations of AIDS was particularly relevant in the United States, where successive Reagan and Bush administrations in the 1980s and early 1990s failed to provide adequate funding for health care and community-devised AIDS education programs. In Australia, a unique partnership between state and Commonwealth governments, doctors and communities at risk resulted in the empowerment of community-based organisations and the introduction of a range of innovative AIDS prevention and treatment programs. Yet even in Australia artists were continually confronted with the possibility that these achievements and future progress would be compromised as long as AIDS continued to be considered a disease of the deviant and deserving: 'poofters', 'junkies' and 'whores'. They witnessed the arrest and detention of HIV-positive sex workers deemed 'reckless' and 'recalcitrant', the threatened withdrawal of funding from gay-based AIDS Councils and needle and syringe exchange programs, and the media's continued portrayal of people with AIDS as doomed and dangerous skeletons. They were equally disturbed by surveys that suggested half of the population wished to see the quarantine of 'infectious' and 'unproductive' AIDS 'victims'. In response they actively sought to recast the representation of people with AIDS, and offered to educate the public about the transmission of HIV at the same time. 

 

American and Australian artists challenged dominant stigmatising portrayals of people with AIDS and high risk groups, in the process blurring the boundary between 'innocent' infection and 'knowing' transmission, and the experience of 'living' with AIDS and dying from it. They sought to implicate 'ordinary' Americans and Australians in the epidemic and recast heterosexual women and men, African-Americans, Latinos and Aborigines in the role of people with AIDS. 

 

In Australia, the work of Rea, Kate Lohse, David McDiarmid, Jamie Dunbar, Bronwyn Bancroft, and Kathy Triffitt, among others, is of significance in this regard. In 1994-95, their work was displayed in a major exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia in the Canberra. Titled Don't Leave Me This Way: Art in the Age of AIDS, the exhibition received $250,000 from the Commonwealth Department of Health, reflecting the government's commitment to fighting AIDS on all fronts -- biological and cultural -- and its recognition that representations of AIDS have real effects in terms of changing attitudes and motivating the public. 

 

In contrast, US galleries and museums were largely unable to attract support from their Federal government or health authorities. Indeed, when Artists Space, a New York non-profit gallery, held an exhibition of AIDS-related works in 1989, the head of the National Endowment for the Arts (the US Government's chief funding institution for cultural production) threatened to revoke a recently bestowed grant because of the (homo)sexually-explicit nature of the exhibition's catalogue essay and some of the works on display. At the same time, the work of gay-based AIDS organisations, such as the Gay Men's Health Crisis, was also largely unrecognised. Video artists such as Gregg Bordowitz and Jean Carlomusto, visual artists and photographers including David Wojnarowicz, Nan Goldin and Barbara Kruger, and artist collectives such as Gran Fury, felt compelled to challenge the latent homophobia of the American people and the US government, which they reasoned was responsible for this situation, and the nation's relatively inadequate and delayed response to AIDS. They first had to deal with the issues of homophobia and the construction of 'deviancy', before they could entice their audience to believe that people with AIDS were not dangerous, deserving of their fate, and (thankfully) doomed. Their interventions became defining moments in what came to be known as the American 'Culture Wars' of the 1980s and early 1990s. 

 

If using this information, please use the following citation:
Paul Sendziuk, 'Portraying People Living with HIV: Art as Activism in the Age of AIDS', The Art of AIDS Prevention, www.aidsart.org; accessed <insert date>

 

Proceed to:

 

3. Challenging Representational Strategies in the Second Decade of the Epidemic

 

4. Artists Respond to the AIDS Crisis in South Africa

 

5. The Art of AIDS Prevention

 

© Paul Sendziuk 2015 

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