HIV/AIDS Activism Through Art: Why We Need to Talk and Know More About It

By Emili Ema Sedlar

In today’s world of activism for human rights and fighting for justice, equality and democracy, not many people are aware of organizations and persons that use art as an influential platform to highlight social issues and injustices that are currently going on in the U.S. Social issues and art together have become an important message, in which many activists and artists warn their audiences about the ongoing dehumanization of marginalized groups, especially now where the current corrupt administration is taking absolutely no action to fight for their citizens.

However, art has become a compelling modern tool of observing and reflecting social issues through images, slogans and real life experiences, which one perceives and sees as vital. In this case, when bringing art out as a fundamental mechanism of absorbing and thinking about current issues, it is essential to include HIV/AIDS into its picture and open up a discussion on how long art  has played a leading role in the lives of people that reflect messages of HIV/AIDS. Visual AIDS was established in 1988. It is still the only contemporary organization fully committed to HIV prevention and AIDS awareness through producing and presenting visual arts projects. Esther McGowan, the executive director of Visual AIDS has discussed more on why art is more important today than ever, how many people are involved today in art activism thus what is the future of HIV/AIDS activism through art.

McGowan explained how Visual AIDS organization is now constantly working with artists and activists today that are strongly engaged in the subject of HIV/AIDS, thus it is imperative to be involved in the process of promoting art that carries a significant message for today’s activists and curious citizens. We produce books, including monographs on under-recognized artists, and our DUETS publication series that pairs artists and activists in conversation. We work with independent curators to organize annual exhibitions addressing issues of HIV/AIDS and art, including an exhibition that opens next week at the Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation 8th Floor event space, titled VOICE = SURVIVAL, which looks at the use of the voice and sound in activism“, described McGowan. Moreover, McGowan illustrated how many artists today have an astonishing and stunning ability of illustrating realities of oppression that are heartbreaking, thus it is essential to inform the wider audience about the value and influence of these figures. “Strong images like Silence=Death by the Silence=Death collective (1986) and Donald Moffett’s He Kills Me (1987) make a lasting impression on viewers, grab people’s attention, call people to action, force people to think about topics they may prefer to ignore, and help to share information with a broad general public”, justified McGowan.

In addition to this, she depicted how the Visual AIDS organization focuses on not only the present struggle with HIV/AIDS activism and showing current contemporary issues such as HIV Criminalization, PrEP, the effects of the HIV/AIDS pandemic on the trans community and communities of color and the American South, but it is important to them to lay out the history of AIDS activism and the people that have lost their lives to it. A good example of how we try to balance the past and present is our current exhibition, VOICE=SURVIVAL, which looks at the importance of the voice in activism, and how it is used by artists and activists both historically and in the present day. “The exhibition features iconic works such as video and audio of Audre Lorde, David Wojnarowicz and Marlon Riggs, but also includes artwork by emerging artists such as Shan Kelley and Kameelah Janan Rasheed, who are actively thinking about today’s issues”, demonstrated McGowan.

One of the artists that is today strikingly extraordinary is Steed Taylor, a notable New York artist active in the HIV/AIDS activism art scene. Taylor described that “producing art is not a simple task, since it requires passion and emotions, especially when discussing about art and social activism together. When it works, it means an effective mix of propaganda, advertising and action based in shared values and principles supporting social change improved and elevated by artistic skill and effort. When it doesn’t work, it can be self-satisfying and insubstantial”, Taylor noticed. Also, Taylor pointed out how it is challenging to be an artist and share an important activist message through art, since there are not many people willing to understand the messages behind the artwork, thus they stigmatize the artist and the artwork. Taylor shared his own experience: “I’ve been derided and ostracized as has my art. A particularly difficult experience was a show of my blood prints, prints made from cuttings on HIV+ people.  A curator from a conservative area wanted to show them.  I was on the fence but acquiesced and the result was an art installer tried to blackmail them; I had to reframe the art so they were airtight and hang the show; the audience denied the artworks, wouldn’t even look at it,  a very dispiriting experience”, Taylor revealed. When it comes to the things that moves and heartens him, nature is something that touches and inspires him. “It’s lush, layered, profound, beautiful yet absolutely brutal and unforgiving. It resets my Circadian rhythm, emphasizes I’m a very tiny part of something huge, powerful and wonderful and helps me see everything can and will be OK”, concluded Taylor.

When talking about social media and the correlation with activism, McGowan explained how through social media, “it is exciting to be a witness of many appealing artworks and transparent protests that are extremely iconic and unforgettable. However, she revealed that her concern is that there seems to be a lack of balance between social media and active physical protest. The concern is that many people may become consumed with posting on social media or «liking» someone else’s post, and lose interest in engaging in «active» activism – getting out in the streets and putting their bodies on the line the way that ACT UP did in the early days of the AIDS crisis”, said McGowan. “What is interesting is that today, there are many middle and high schools visiting each year Visual AIDS organization in order to learn more on the history and today’s importance of HIV/AIDS activism. We also have an active internship program in which 10-12 undergraduate and graduate students work in the Visual AIDS office over the period of several months, to learn about the workings of a social justice nonprofit”, said McGowan.

In addition to this, McGowan added how one of the most memorable programs is the annual LOVE POSITIVE WOMEN Valentine project. The project was launched by women living with HIV and invited artists in which they produced hand-made valentines for women living with HIV around the world. We hold a week-long exhibition of the Valentines at a space in Manhattan before they are mailed and include an opening event featuring shared stories and testimonials from the participants about the importance of love and community. One participant, who had only recently become comfortable with talking openly about living with HIV, took the microphone and gave a beautiful testimonial in which she said “When you’re living inside yourself, and you’re hiding inside, it’s hard to come out. But when you hear other people come out, it’s a joyful feeling. It’s a struggle when you’re fighting with yourself… I used to think nobody understood. And I see when I look around how many people do understand… Now I’m not afraid anymore”, concluded McGowan.