Big Ideas + Actions

Art, activism and HIV: triggering emotions, imagination and action

January 21, 2021
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The prof clicks to the next slide and the packed, dim theatre in the University of Toronto’s already gloomy Sid Smith Hall falls silent and eery.

Appropriated by the fashion brand Benneton for a print ad in 1991, the startling image beamed on the screen depicts gay activist, David Kirby laying dying of complications from AIDS, surrounded by grieving family.

The presenter goes on about the photo’s composition, referencing dying Christ, or pieta in art history speak. But curiously to me at the time, he didn’t utter the word AIDS.

Which hardly mattered as I melted deeper into my seat—flushed with fresh fear and shame.

Friends and I would continue to question why not a peep about AIDS? Nor a single comment about the campaign's audacious Christ metaphor. Which, according to Benneton was designed to expose society’s callous indifference toward the epidemic, like much of the ‘shockvertising’ of the era sought to do.

Instead, it would mostly trigger backlash and outrage among HIV/AIDS activists.

Activists argued this approach spread fear of sufferers, and commoditized suffering. In turn fuelling misinformation, even disinformation, and widespread fear—which always festers in the form of stigma and discrimination.

Benetton advertising campaign, 1990

Kirby’s father saw it differently. “Benneton is not using us, we’re using Benetton… If that photograph helps someone then it’s worth whatever pressure we have to go through,” he stated publicly.

I grew up relatively conservative and privileged. As a white male student my big toe barely poked out the closet door. Suddenly, the prospect of getting the ‘gay disease’ drove the shame of just being gay (tattooed early on every gay man’s DNA) even deeper. Still, I reasoned, if this plague didn’t literally kill me, living in perpetual terror of it would.

So, for me, the world’s first public advertising campaign to address AIDS worked. Through the ad’s agonizing (even though manipulative) photo, I connected to a stranger’s intense experience. Which jolted me to get my first HIV test.

Whether an advertising image (typically about selling and consumerism) or as art (about revealing, usually aligned with culture), either have the ability to convey an emotion or thought, intentionally or not. And even beyond my own experiences, science proves that at least two-thirds of all stimuli reach the brain visually. So although human thought is neither words nor visual images, it seems to reason that the act of thinking (or feeling) is naturally closer to something visual versus spoken or written.

...I connected to a stranger’s intense experience. Which jolted me to get my first HIV test.

Since that early homophobic incident at U of T, friends and I would avoid those sorts of profs like the plague (pun intended). But countless others (especially grad student teaching assistants) had lasting impact on how I’d look at art, and how deeply it’s imprinted in human nature.

Take the twisted, contorted, even violent paintings of Francis Bacon –– known as the ‘loudest, rudest, drunkest, most sought-after British artist of the 20th century.’

Bacon was openly gay at a time when loving another man was still illegal in the U.K. and Canada. With his brush and paint he dared to express deep, human feeling. As the most famous (and contentious) art critic of the day, Robert Hughes, put it, "terror, angst, even excitement finds its way insistently into the greatest of his paintings." On the edge of activism, these images would slice right through my consciousness.


Francis Bacon, Three Studies for a Crucifix, 1962. Guggenheim Museum, New York

Later biographies reveal Bacon’s blustery gay life and disturbed existence, including pushing his fetishist partner, while reportedly consensual, to inflict extreme forms of physical punishment on him. “[Bacon’s work] clamps itself on your nervous system: the pictures come with teeth, and drool you cannot wipe away,” Hughes wrote at the time.

During the 60’s legal persecution continued to affect artists in the U.K. and North America. But it was also a time of liberation, of people finding themselves. "Identifying each other and building communities," a curator of a recent gay and lesbian focused exhibition at London’s Tate Gallery notes.

Hockney wanted to celebrate just how different the gay lifestyle is from the heterosexual one

Like Bacon, according to art writer, Michael Valinsky, Hockney also snubbed otherwise ‘normal’ social structures. Incorporating allusions to his own homosexuality in his paintings, phallic elements in tandem with fantastical colours and imagery, Hockney wanted to celebrate just how different the gay lifestyle is from the heterosexual one.

David Hockney, Portrait of an An Artist (Pool with Two Figures), 1972. Private collection

Most of all Hockney lead an unapologetic life. “Hockney continued to carve out a vantage point from which viewers can intimately witness (and participate in) queer life, and to open up a space for queer artists to inhabit,” Valinsky writes.

These, and other artists’ legacies gave voice to so many, providing aspiring artists with the tools and confidence to more openly explore their art. “They looked at oppression not as a threat, but as a challenge to shock, subvert, and shake up heteronormative structures."

Over the next couple decades, many western artists who had been capturing gay life before the AIDS epidemic, began to deliberately mesh their art with activism, writes, Chris Dupuis in a recent CBC arts story. Among them, photographers and filmmakers, Sunil Gupta, Felix Gonazlez-Torres and Derek Jarman most potently reflected the angst of the mid-1980’s.

The power of art, relative to HIV, activism and its implications would really hit home less in the studio or classroom and more in the community. At Hart House, one of North America’s oldest—and remarkably inclusive—student community centres, friends and I actively helped build the University’s art collection. In that same zero-apology-Hockney bent, we discovered Canadian artists like Attila Lukaks whose stunning, large scale paintings cunningly (and beautifully) fused sexual aggression and social deviance with the painterly grandeur of European masters.

Atilla Richard Lukaks, Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow, 1991. National Gallery of Canada

Canadian ‘queer collective’, General Idea deployed artistic gestures even further defying the demonization of gay sex and AIDS. Critical of governments’ slow responses to research and new treatments, the group famously appropriated Robert Indiana’s logo LOVE exchanging it with AIDS in the same font. Still widely recognized globally today, the image went viral several decades before the insta-age of social sharing.

General Idea, AIDS, 1987. Various collections

Deep into the epidemic, internationally renowned Canadian artist, Stephen Andrews—who has lived and thrived with HIV for decades—focused on the notion of memorialization to boost HIV consciousness. He would layer various media, metaphors and ideas to powerful effect. His portrait series of graphite-and-oil-rubbed wax tablets, Facsimile (1991) symbolically used smudgy and pixelated faxed images of obituary portraits of men who died from HIV/AIDS complications.

Stephen Andrews, Facsimile, 1992-93

From the perspective of it being a treatable disease, HIV/AIDS would change drastically over the years that followed. In a CBC arts story, ‘How the stigma of HIV continues to destroy lives’, LGBT2SQ issues and entertainment writer, Ryan Thompson explains that,  “… for people of my generation and beyond, this crisis happened in the periphery of our childhood or in a televised history often told through a lens coloured by systemic homophobia.”

And yet despite ground-breaking medical advancements over the last several years making HIV a manageable health condition, it’s astonishing that the disease is still rising in Canada, along with the stigma and discrimination that cling to it. "The HIV epidemic, like all STIs, has been a natural home for moralistic public health through the policing of people's sexuality, drug use, and racial and ethnic boundaries,” Thompson plainly states.

...it’s astonishing that the disease is still rising in Canada, along with the stigma and discrimination that cling to it.

The HIV Stigma Index Canada (A look at the Greater Toronto Findings) underscores how stigma and discrimination continue to impact peoples’ lives, including their physical and mental health. With negative effects on social connections and income, it’s an insidious barrier that blocks or slows access to prevention (PrEP), testing and treatment.

Chris Dupuis writes that in response, and as an urgent reminder, many Canadian artists today are making ideas of HIV and stigma central to their work—replacing the shame-based past with community strength, zero-apology empowerment and pride.

Jessica Whitbread, No Pants No Problem

Female artist, Jessica Whitbread injects her work around HIV with an activist bent, Dupuis writes. The ongoing social art project Love Positive Women, is a project built on social media to create a digital space for people loving and caring for women living with HIV. Whitbread’s projects are frequently tinged with humour, Dupuis further writes that, No Pants No Problem, takes a joyous approach to sexuality—“a combination curatorial project and underwear dance party.”

Toronto-based HIV-positive performance and video artist (and queer community health activist) Mikiki, snubs the western canon of artmaking even more boldly.

In the current pozcast episode on this website, Mikiki discusses how HIV art activism has evolved from the 80’s and 90’s to today. “A lot of us [artists] don't have to worry about death—the immediacy of death.” This freedom, he says, helps drive his HIV-specific, or related artwork and ideas—in particular, exposing the double-whammy HIV stigma still fueled by prejudiced perceptions of ‘reckless’ sex and injection drug use.

“We’re creating a new community value around believing that HIV-positive gay men, are responsible people… regardless of the endpoint of our decisions about sexual health, drug use, etc… we're allowed to believe that we’re inherently responsible, because we prove it to ourselves when getting an HIV test.” Even though, he says, “we might be scared of it.”

We’re creating a new community value around believing that HIV-positive gay men, are responsible people…

Equal parts irreverent, ingenious and outrageous, Mikiki’s performances might include his drawing his own blood and spraying it in his eyes. Or his Rose Beef drag show that blends the gay cult of The Golden Girls and comfort food with uncomfortable conversations on contemporary queer life.

MIKIKI, Rose Beef Sermon

Yet Mikiki isn’t making art exclusively for the audience, explaining, “I’m really doing it for me, looking through my rose-colored glasses… I'm literally coloring my vision with HIV.” I hear echoes of Francis Bacon, who decades earlier wrote, “I’m not trying to say anything in particular in my work. I’m simply attempting to convey my sensations about existence at the deepest level I can.”

Fortunately, though, Mikiki adds a layer of optimism and hope to his activist lens—“I have never subscribed to the idea that artists need to be in pain to make meaningful or beautiful work. There's enough fucking pain out in the world that I can just take a handful of that and throw it into my practice.”

...looking through my rose-colored glasses… I'm literally coloring my vision with HIV.”

Contributing writer Ted Geatros is a partner of brand experience company, ConsumptionCo.

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