It defined an era, and forever altered the way people would view health, sexuality, and relationships. Since the initial discovery of HIV 30 years ago, the AIDS pandemic has transformed the globe, affecting people everywhere, regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation. It has virtually wiped out entire communities, destroyed families, and left millions of children orphaned. It is the most serious, far-reaching health crisis in the history of the modern world, and it continues to affect all sectors of contemporary society. While there have been major breakthroughs in treatment options, there is still no cure, and a disappointing lack of strategies for AIDS education continues to be a problem.
And despite the advances in medical technology and the reduction of new HIV infections annually due to antiretroviral drugs, the number of people worldwide living with HIV has risen considerably, from around 8 million in 1990 to 33 million at the end of 2009. Approximately 2.6 million people are infected with HIV annually, and 1.8 million die from AIDS. Thanks to the art world, however, the past twenty-odd years have seen a wide variety of AIDS awareness ad campaigns - helping to promote prevention and understanding.
Since 1982 when the disease began gaining worldwide attention, government agencies, grassroots organizations, and health industries have been advocating awareness and prevention through the aid of visual media. The perception of the HIV virus, the AIDS epidemic, and the affect it has had on the world can be seen in the posters produced by these agencies in the past few decades. From iconic images that brought a face to the disease - like the heartbreaking image of AIDS activist David Kirby on his deathbed, surrounded by family (later used in the infamous United Colors of Benetton Ad campaign that caused an uproar around the world) - to posters that use cartoons to address the issue with humor, these images are powerful, evocative reminders that the fight against this pandemic is far from over.
On October 2nd, The Museum of Design Atlanta opened a remarkable exhibit charting the history of this global epidemic and how it has affected and continues to shape modern culture, through the posters that helped bring awareness to the world. Graphic Intervention: 25 Years of International AIDS Awareness Posters 1985-2010 draws from a comprehensive archive of international public health announcements that utilized graphic design as a platform for AIDS prevention, education, and information. Co-curated by Elizabeth Resnick, Professor and Chair of Graphic Design at MassArt, and Javier Cortes, Partner and Creative Director at Korn Design in Boston, the show features 153 posters spanning a quarter of a century, from a slew of countries across the globe. The exhibit illustrates how this complex issue has been conceptualized in different cultures and time periods in the past 25 years.
In tandem with Graphic Intervention, the AIDS Memorial Quilt is also on display at the venue, with different blocks of the quilt changing monthly. The Quilt began in 1987 and continues to expand, making it the largest continuous community project in the world. Each of the 40,000 panels pays tribute to a life taken by the disease, and it serves the dual purpose of exquisite memorial and poignant prevention tool.
Co-curators Elizabeth Resnick, and Javier Cortes spoke to MutualArt in a recent interview, expanding on the details of a show that they hope will inspire greater recognition and understanding of HIV and AIDS, while reflecting on how global culture has interpreted this ongoing battle.
MutualArt: AIDS is such a controversial, often painful topic for a lot of people. What was the inspiration behind Graphic Intervention?
Elizabeth Resnick: Jim Lapides, poster collector and owner of The International Poster Gallery, had mentioned to me in 2005 that he owned a large international AIDS poster archive. At the time I was completing the curation for the Graphic Imperative: International Posters of Peace, Social Justice and the Environment 1965–2005, (a large socio-political poster exhibition spanning 40 years and co-curated with my colleagues Chaz Maviyane-Davies and Frank Baseman). I recalled this mention when I was looking for another socio-political topic in which to produce a follow-up poster exhibition.
MA: And how did the idea evolve from there?
Javier Cortés: Our aim was to explore the different visual strategies that designers and community activists have used to communicate the messages of AIDS prevention and awareness. We were interested in how these messages are tailored to specific cultures, as well as how the messages have evolved over the past 30 years.
MA: How many works are there in the show? How were they selected?
ER: Javier and I spent about 4 months in late 2009 reviewing Lapides’ 3,500 piece archive. Once we had finished, I realized there were posters I was familiar with but were not in the archive. I had also invited poster designers who had participated in the “Graphic Imperative” to submit their AIDS awareness posters. About two-thirds of the exhibit are posters taken from Lapides’ archive, and one-third are posters donated to the college from contemporary contacts. In all there are 153 posters in 125 frames.
MA: How did you decide to organize the show, in terms of the way the works are presented?
JC: The exhibit is organized by continent: North America, Europe, Asia Oceana, Africa, Australia. Within each region, rather than simply presenting the posters by country alphabetically and chronologically, we sought to find visual and thematic threads, pairing posters that would inspire dialogue.
ER: Javier and I thought long and hard as to how to display 153 posters in an organized fashion. The main point-of-view of the exhibition was to demonstrate the myriad of visual languages strategies imposed by many cultures (44 to be exact) in communicating important messages on one topic. That topic of course was HIV/AIDS awareness...[that’s why] we settled on organizing the posters by continent.
MA: Thematically speaking, is there a trend, in terms of how AIDS posters evolved over the years?
ER: Safer sex through the use of condoms became the primary focus of AIDS campaigns in the late 1980s. It was an important shift away from earlier messages aimed at answering simple questions on how HIV was transmitted, who is at risk, and how to prevent infection. There are three central aims of the posters, and each work addresses one or more of these goals: education (how one can get AIDS), prevention (using a condom), and respect/compassion (for those who are sick).
JC: AIDS posters have evolved over the years in parallel with the attitudes and awareness of the communities they are created for, often aiming to promote new understandings. In the early years, the posters focused more on awareness. As effective HIV therapies were developed, we began to see more posters focusing on understanding and compassion for those living with HIV and AIDS.
MA: What do you think the biggest obstacle has been in terms of how the disease has been received by the general public? How have the various AIDS awareness campaigns addressed these issues?
ER: By far the biggest problem was the stigma surrounding sex, sexuality, and intravenous drug use, which prevented millions of people from being open about their status. As a consequence many people failed to receive life-saving information about HIV and its prevention. Unjustified discrimination and ignorance have also prevented people with, or suspected of having HIV, to be turned away from health care services, denied housing and employment, and fundamentally shunned by society. Significant efforts have been made to address and change individual and social attitudes by creating messages moving beyond the documentation of the issue to asserting positive role models, and encouraging affirmative action.
MA: Are there disparities in the way different countries have addressed AIDS and HIV through visual media?
ER: AIDS awareness posters are created through poster campaigns and competitions across continents, and are issued by a variety of government institutions, NGOs (non-government organizations), and many concerned individuals acting upon a growing trend toward expressing ‘personal politics’ —taking an active interest in issues that have an impact on the individual and society as a whole. Each culture has symbols, colors, images, pictorials that speak directly to its individual constituency. The posters we have selected emphasize a tendency to follow pictorial traditions often rooted within the religious, socio-cultural and political traditions of the select countries.
JC: Two of my favorite works in the show illustrate this relationship: AIDS: Suspicious Sex, Uneasy Conscience, Forbidden Behaviour, Deadly Diseases from Iraq, 1992-93 uses fear to inspire the viewer to protect himself or herself against the virus, while If I Am Infected by the AIDS Virus Then Who Will Catch the Fish? from India, 1995, uses a very compassionate, loving message to inspire the viewer to protect himself or herself against the virus. The visual styles of all the posters range from local vernacular, as in the Indian posters, to modern abstraction, as shown in some of the American and European posters.
MA: Were there any specific challenges in curating this kind of show?
ER: The biggest challenge is to find vernacular and cultural ephemera from under-developed countries. This is where Lapides’ AIDS archive came in so handy. Much of this work was collected at the international AIDS conferences over the years or by visiting small communities in under-developed countries (and Western/Asian countries) and collecting materials being used in the communities.
MA: Why do you think this exhibit is so important? What do you hope to relay to your audience...is there a specific message you want them to walk away with?
ER: The HIV/AIDS epidemic isn’t just happening in faraway places. HIV is still a threat across the United States. Before we can stop any epidemic, we first have to recognize the magnitude of the disease. People here in the United States become infected with HIV on the average of every 9.5 minutes. And it changes not only the lives of those who become infected, but also the lives of their families and friends. Even though there are treatments to help people with HIV live longer than ever before, AIDS is still a significant public health issue.
JC: This exhibit is important because AIDS affects every country, and is responsible for not just deaths of millions of people, but also has left behind hundreds of thousands of orphans, and has ravaged communities by wiping out a large portion of the working adult population. It was important for us to make sure there is continued awareness of this epidemic, so we may continue to search for a cure and a solution.
Graphic Intervention: 25 Years of International Aids Posters runs from October 2 - January 1, 2012 at the Museum of Design Atlanta (the AIDS memorial quilt will also be on display at the venue during this time); on World AIDS Day (December 1st) the MODA will be open for a special 24-hour event, featuring entertainment, education and refreshments. Graphic Intervention will then be on display from February 1-22, 2012 at the Edinboro University Pennsylvania, before the exhibition’s last stop at the University of Northern Iowa, from August-September 2012.
Written by MutualArt writer Lauren Meir