In reflecting on my visit to Why We Fight: Remembering AIDS Activism, I felt the exhibit comprised a well-curated collection of key moments in the early years of HIV/AIDS awareness and activism, and brought the viewer along in realizing the impact of those collaborations on today’s HIV/AIDS landscape. The curators made the decision to not chronologically order the work, in preference of categorizing content around key issues – changing perceptions, people living with HIV, safer sex, public mourning, activism, and current HIV issues. It highlighted the work of pivotal organizations such as GMHC, Gran Fury, and ACT-UP NY. However, for me, there were holes on both ends of the story – it didn’t touch enough on the impact of the current state of HIV/AIDS research, activism, or awareness, or the loss of a swath of key figures at the beginning of the fight that set the stage for activism.
For example, while I think that pharmaceutical research is pushing along the HIV/AIDS agenda toward a cure, and the disease itself is in many ways considered a chronic illness, there was not enough emphasis on current campaigns around prophylaxis drugs, living with HIV, focusing on current vulnerable populations. Also, when I think about the impact of the loss of those leaders that made significant strides in the infancy of the disease, of course I think about Vito Russo (clearly), but I also think about pioneer care givers, like Ramon Torres, the former director of Saint Vincent’s AIDS clinic, who, upon its closing, spiraled into drug addiction, and acquired HIV. Barring a litany of other early pioneers, it would have been great to not only focus on the strides that have been made, but also to gain an understanding of the undulating landscape of care that has resulted from the disease shifting from acute to chronic state. It is hard to imagine what isn’t there, but since the exhibit was so slanted toward chronicling controversial media and art parallels, it would have been impressive to allude to the loss of key figures.
The curation was far more than pink triangles, bold text, and Keith Haring – where I think the exhibit excelled was in the delivery of portraying the gradual mainstream awareness of the disease, by showcasing work such as the powerful imagery of the Benetton campaign, that included a family at the bedside of their dying son – drawing in the viewer to face the disease at the end of life, with “every day” people surrounding the dying man, suffering similar to Mary’s Passion of Christ. I thought this was an interesting juxtaposition to other religiously-charged imagery, such as ACT UP!’s “Stop the Church” campaign – featuring mock front page imagery decrying Cardinal O’Connors desire to not teach sex ed. I think it’s important to note that the show focused on the issues central to the disease during this time (and even to draw contemporary parallels) – sex workers, drug addiction, the poor. Being able to peruse the public health literature was particularly impactful, including early pamphlets describing how to have safe sex. Being transported back to this time, or remembering it first-hand, it is impressive to think that these leaflets were ground breaking – and life saving. As the exhibit continued, it was interesting to experience other media, such as a short video on DiAna’s hair salon, chronicling grass-roots activism in the South. DiAna, and her partner Dr. Bambi Sumpter, confront the viewer, and share their tale of DiAna’s work – a hairdresser that became increasingly engaged and aware of HIV/AIDS news. As the prevalence and incidence of HIV/AIDS increased, DiAna started to serve as a default sex educator to her customers. DiAna, unashamed, shares her display of free condoms, mixed within bins of hair accessories for sale. In contrast to the funding for national ad campaigns plastered throughout the exhibit, DiAna is forthright in sharing that she was constantly reading and became an oral storyteller – because she couldn’t afford making photocopies of articles she was reading. Clients, getting washed and set or buzzed, are eager to tell the interviewer what they have learned from DiAna – whether it was no sex being the only safe sex, or becoming comfortable with discussing sexual acts with partners. She is quick to reveal teaching aids, and has become a leading grass-roots sex educator. Her partner, Dr. Sumpter, book ends DiAna’s tale by sharing shocking accounts of children having sex, unashamed to share graphic details of their encounter.
Having been a child of the 80s in NYC, and having family members and friends suffer the impact of HIV and AIDS, it was emotionally powerful to “relive” what I would consider a memorial. I vividly remember many of the events that were chronicled at Why We Fight, whether it was the street art of Keith Haring, or involvement in the AIDS quilt. I also remember the now-ignorant, but then, very-real fear around contracting the virus. I think this exhibit was a solid compliment to the global perspectives that we have been discussing in class, particularly as it focused primarily on US-lead grassroots initiatives.