AIDS Is Not Over

By the time President Reagan spoke the word “AIDS” in 1985, over 12,000 Americans had already died of the virus. [1] Government silence during the AIDS epidemic directly resulted in the death of thousands of AIDS victims. In response, the rally cry of AIDS activists became “Silence = Death.”[2] To combat the silence, individuals with HIV/AIDS sought various methods to testify, assert their presence, and be heard. Artist and activist David Wojnarowicz cited his motivation for creating art “as an acute desire to produce objects that could speak” and affirm his existence when he no longer could.[3] With this frame of reference, if silence equals death, and art functions as language, then art is equivalent to life. Founded in 1988, the nonprofit organization Visual AIDS originated as an initiative to capture the relationship between art, artists, and the AIDS epidemic.

Visual AIDS was founded in 1988 with a mission to “utilize art to fight AIDS by provoking dialogue, supporting HIV+ artists and preserving a legacy, because AIDS is not over.”[4] The organization has since evolved to offer visual art projects, exhibitions, publications, workshops, a curatorial residency, and artist grants. The majority of its offerings exist online but materialize physically through partnerships with galleries, art institutions, and other nonprofit activist organizations. Visual AIDS currently exists as the only contemporary arts organization dedicated to “creating dialogue and scholarship around HIV/AIDS today,”[5] while simultaneously preserving and promoting the artwork of HIV+ artists.

Among the most notable projects produced by Visual AIDS is the Red Ribbon Project. Established in 1991 by a group of artists, the project utilized the attachment of a red ribbon to clothing as a symbol of support for individuals with AIDS and their caregivers. Red ribbons were constructed by the thousands and nationally distributed. Today the red ribbon is an internationally recognized symbol of AIDS awareness.

Another monumental achievement of the Visual AIDS organization was the Archive Project. Developed in 1994, the Archive Project began as an initiative to collect and preserve the artworks of HIV+ artists via a slide archive. The motivation behind the project stemmed from concern at the amount of artists dying during the AIDS crisis. Since its origin, the archive has been documenting professional visual artists who are living with or have died from HIV. The archive functions as a form of activism and as a public resource. In 2012, the archive was rebranded as the Visual Aids Artist+ Registry, which includes digital versions of original slides as well as contemporary submissions from HIV+ artist members. Currently the registry serves as the largest database of artworks by artists with HIV/AIDS.

Gin Louie, untitled 1 (Physician Desk Ref.), 1993, Visual AIDS Artist+ Registry

The artworks within the archives of the Artist Registry are curated and featured on the Visual AIDS online gallery every month and then archived online. The web gallery provides an additional opportunity for increased public exposure for the organization’s member artists. Additionally, Visual AIDS produces exhibitions and public programs that examine the historical impact of the AIDS crisis as well as contemporary issues related to AIDS today, in collaboration with various galleries and art museums.

Alexander Hernandez, “Cuddle,” 2016, Visual AIDS Artist+ Registry

Visual AIDS further supports its artist members by issuing material grants to those in need of financial assistance. All members are eligible to apply for a grant every 12 months. The grants are issued based on applications submitted twice annually in the form of gift certificates via Blick Art Materials and B&H Photo Video and the digitization of 10 artworks through Legacybox. Visual AIDS offers an additional opportunity for exposure and support of artists with its monthly residency program. Each resident curator is encouraged to create exhibitions, public programming, and scholarship related to HIV/AIDS and contemporary art. He/She/They are also provided a shared office space in Brooklyn, NY and a designated venue for public programs produced during the residency.

Over 30 years since its founding, Visual AIDS has remained true to its mission and although the organization began during the AIDS Crisis of the 1980s, its purpose remains relevant today. According to the CDC about 1.1 million people in the United States are currently living with HIV and it continues to disproportionately impact marginalized communities of black, Latinx, and gay and bisexual individuals.[6] To avoid the mistakes of the past, it is imperative we follow the example of organizations like Visual AIDS and recognize and affirm the existence, importance, and impact of these individuals.

~AG

[1] Tim Fitzsimons, “LGBTQ History Month: The early days of America’s AIDS crisis,” NBC News, October 15, 2018, https://www.nbcnews.com/feature/nbc-out/lgbtq-history-month-early-days-america-s-aids-crisis-n919701.

[2] Tim Fitzsimons, “LGBTQ History Month: The early days of America’s AIDS crisis,” NBC News, October 15, 2018, https://www.nbcnews.com/feature/nbc-out/lgbtq-history-month-early-days-america-s-aids-crisis-n919701.

[3]  Olivia Laing, “David Wojnarowicz: Still fighting prejudice 24 years after his death,” The Guardian, May 12, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/may/13/david-wojnarowicz-close-to-the-knives-a-memoir-of-disintegration-artist-aids-activist.

[4] “About Us,” Visual AIDS, https://visualaids.org/about-us

[5] https://visualaids.org/projects

[6] “U.S. Statistics,” HIV.GOV, https://www.hiv.gov/hiv-basics/overview/data-and-trends/statistics.

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