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Looking at the artists and activists who spread the word about HIV/AIDS

Noting the ‘documentary form’ as of relevance to the historicisation of the LGBTQ+ movement, these artists bring the image towards the evidentiary.

by Sukanya DebPublished on : Jun 22, 2022

While over the last few decades there have been strides towards the social and legal acceptance of LGBTQ+ identities, the struggle for rights around self-determination, affirmation, equality and dignity on a global scale continues. Celebrated in the month of June, International Pride 2022 marks 40 years since the beginning of the HIV/AIDS global epidemic. Having lived the last two years ruled by the COVID-19 pandemic, institutional, medical and pharmaceutical responses have allowed for the virus to be rightly treated as life-threatening, with vaccines being developed and deployed on a global scale. In comparison, HIV/AIDS was socially and publicly treated as the disease of sex workers and gay men, due to its sexually transmittable nature, an automatic ‘othering’ and a moral panic that put lives at mortal risk. AIDS public health awareness was taken up by activists and action groups in the United States, for example, including artists and filmmakers, who worked towards promoting education around safe sex practices, coping with the fatal virus besides living with it. Not all those who contract HIV have AIDS, but one runs the risk of passing on the virus.  

Awareness and acceptance around LGBTQ+ identities, besides groundwork, have also taken place through popular media and artforms. Representation in popular culture, besides revisiting of queer histories, becomes important in order to honour those who suffered inequality as well as to take a step into the future, towards an equitable society. Revisiting America in the 1980s when the AIDS pandemic started to take shape, many popular cultural figures, including artists, took their expression of a societal change and community feeling of fear, loss, anger, to their artforms. Many artists themselves were affected by the virus, whether they lived with it, died of it or knew people within their own communities who had been infected.

Orgasmic Man, 1969, Photograph | Peter Hujar | STIRworld
Orgasmic Man, 1969, Photograph, Peter Hujar Image: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Peter Hujar (1934-87) was a photographer particularly known for his black and white portraits, a prominent voice in late 20th century Manhattan, New York. He became dedicated to documenting a cultural milieu in New York, after quitting his commercial photography job, and instead choosing activism for gay rights. Witness to the Stonewall protests in West Village, Hujar led a life that recorded the times including documenting S&M bars, cruise spots, creating portraits, in order to present a layered and complex tapestry of gay life in the city.

Hujar was greatly influential to David Wojnarowicz (1954-92), who was a painter, mixed media artist and a writer, who was politically vocal through his work. Wojnarowicz and Hujar were lovers for a brief time before the latter’s AIDS-related death in the late 80s, after which the former took to activism. Wojnarowicz is known for his interventional street art and sublime mixed-media collages that piece together text and image, often autobiographical in nature, and exploring identity, politics, sexuality, and ideas around deviance that informed a society-wide moralism in the 20th century. In his famous photostat work Untitled (1990), where we can see a portrait of the artist as a young boy, surrounded by text that generates a prophecy around his life, particularly reflecting on politics and delusion around homosexuality and the effect of non-acceptance in society.

Untitled (One Day This Kid…), 1990, Photostat, David Wojnarowicz | David Wojnarowicz | STIRworld
Untitled (One Day This Kid…), 1990, Photostat, David Wojnarowicz Image: Courtesy of Flickr

The image became a form that took a life of its own during this time, whether we think of Wojnarowicz’s collages, Hujar’s photographs or the video art that embodied the urgency that was being felt by a community. Juanita Mohammed is an AIDS activist and filmmaker, who lives to this day as a community video artist. Mohammed worked to empower marginalised women who were affected by AIDS, especially lower income women of colour, who were largely unrecognised in the movement. She also makes education videos on the AIDS crisis and community, reflecting on stories that depict daily life, tenderness and intimacy, aside from documenting the effects that AIDS has on the affected and their bodies.

Poster for the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), 1970, Photograph, Peter Hujar| STIRworld
Poster for the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), 1970, Photograph, Peter Hujar Image: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Ray Navarro (1964-90) was a prominent activist and video artist during the 1980s, where he along with eight other members founded DIVA TV. DIVA TV was an offshoot project from the demonstration group named ACT UP, which the former documented, through their street protests and civil disobediences in response to AIDS protocol. Documentation and annotation of the then-present was important to carry the movement into the future. He died at the young age of 26 after losing his sight due to AIDS-related complications.

Portrait of David Wojnarowicz, 1990, Photograph, Marion Scemama | Marion Scemama | STIRworld
Portrait of David Wojnarowicz, 1990, Photograph, Marion Scemama Image: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Untitled (Perfect Lovers) by Felix Gonzalez-Torres is a famous example of art during the period that has been interpreted to be a reflection of Torres’ partner Ross Laycock’s struggle with the virus that eventually caused his death. Two identical wall clocks touch each other as they are placed on display and theoretically are to remain in sync, though one knows the impossibility of the feat given the non-durable nature of commercial clocks. The artwork presents us with the paradox of that which looks to be in total sync, but where the tension of loss is palpable.

Equipped, 1990, Silver gelatin prints and plastic plaques, Ray Novarro and Zoe Leonard | Ray Novarro and Zoe Leonard| STIRworld
Equipped, 1990, Silver gelatin prints and plastic plaques, Ray Novarro and Zoe Leonard Image: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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