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The Art of AIDS Prevention


Paul Sendziuk


Due to the nature of HIV, its modes of transmission, and the marginalised status of those it commonly infects, ‘traditional’ methods of infectious disease control, such as compulsory testing and quarantine, were deemed to be ineffective in limiting its spread. Public health authorities in the United States, Australia and, to a lesser extent, South Africa therefore embraced aspects of the (awkwardly termed) ‘New Public Health’ to counter the threat that AIDS posed. The principles of the New Public Health, outlined in the World Health Organisation’'s Ottawa Charter, placed primary importance on disease prevention (rather than treatment and the containment of infected individuals), effectively diminishing the responsibility of doctors and medical professionals to protect public health. It sought disease prevention through education, community participation in decision-making and the provision of health education, community empowerment, community building, and public policy intervention. In the context of HIV, community empowerment meant fostering a sense of hope that AIDS could be beaten; community building entailed creating a space for survivors to grieve, celebrate, affirm and renew their energies; and public policy interventions involved modifying existing laws so as to facilitate healthy social environments.


Visual and performing artists, either working independently or commissioned by public health authorities and community-based AIDS organisations, have been active in each of these areas. Through the production of images and narratives that challenged existing myths and stereotypes about AIDS, their primary objective was to mould or change a public and political mindset that was unprepared to face the realities of the epidemic. Often limited to a single photographic opportunity or a palette of only two colours, these artists were asked to produce a dramatic shift in public attitudes towards sex, sexuality, health and illness. The remarkable increase in condom use and acceptance of people living with HIV/AIDS that was reported in large-scale public surveys in Australia and the United States, coupled with the rapid decline of HIV infection rates, was seemingly testament to the power of artist-designed images and campaign materials to effect behavioural change. Artists have been a largely untapped resource in South Africa, however, as this country’'s government has favoured the use of politicians, sportspeople and doctors to present HIV-messages rather than artists (Jan Jordaan and Art for Humanity's 'Break the Silence' billboard project is an obvious exception). This might account for the blandness of some of the government sponsored HIV-prevention campaigns. 


In addition to AIDS/sex education, the New Public Health called for community empowerment and community building as it was understood that one’'s motivation to maintain a regime of safe sex was dependent upon the belief that one’'s sacrifice would be worthwhile: that AIDS could be stopped, and the community one belonged to was worth preserving. Research indicated that those who believed infection and death to be inevitable, or who were traumatised by the loss of loved ones, were less likely to heed messages regarding safe sex and drug use. A number of papers presented at the Eighth International AIDS Conference in Amsterdam in July 1992, for example, dealt with the growing experience of ‘'multiple loss syndrome'’ among gay men, an experience defined to include feelings of anger, resentment, isolation, guilt, abandonment, depression, and fatalism. Suicide, perceived to be a result of multiple loss syndrome, was cited as the leading cause of non-AIDS mortality in a cohort of San Francisco homosexuals. Public health authorities and AIDS organisations thus became keen to foster the belief that it was possible to avoid infection and that it was worthwhile continuing to live in the midst of the epidemic. 


Australian, American and South African artists and cultural workers have taken a leadership role in this regard. Organisers of ‘AIDS art’ exhibitions at (for example) the National Gallery of Australia, the Durban Art Gallery, Artists Space and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and cultural events such as the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, the Candlelight Vigil and AIDS Quilt unfoldings, sought to provide an outlet for communal grief and an opportunity to celebrate the vitality of the community that remained. Artists such as Felix Gonzales-Torres, Frank Moore, Duane Michals, Andrew Foster, Maree Azzopardi, William Yang, Churchill Madikida, Gideon Mendel, and Diane Victor, whose elegiac photographs, paintings and installations focused on the themes of remembrance and transcendence, were also important in this respect, as were participatory arts initiatives such as the Memory Box and Body Mapping projects in South Africa. 

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Paul Sendziuk, 'The Art of AIDS Prevention', The Art of AIDS Prevention,; accessed <insert date>


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