Art, activism and HIV: triggering emotions, imagination and action
The prof clicks to the next slide and the packed, dim theatre in the University of Toronto’s gloomy Sid Smith Hall falls silent and eery.
Appropriated from LIFE magazine by the fashion brand Benneton for a print ad in 1991, the startling image beamed on to the screen depicts gay activist, David Kirby laying dying of complications from AIDS. His agonizing family surrounds him.
The prof 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.
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 mostly triggered 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 (the current, true-to-life British television drama serial, It's a Sin, brings this insidious cycle to painful life during the most brutal period of the epidemic).
But Kirby’s father flips the thinking here. “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 insisted publicly at the time.
...if this plague didn’t literally kill me, living in perpetual terror of it would.
I grew up 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 (if manipulative) photograph, 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), both have the ability to convey an emotion or thought, intentionally or not. Science proves that at least two-thirds of all stimuli reach the brain visually. So although human thought is neither words nor visual images, the act of thinking (or feeling) feels 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 all reputably biased (conscious or unconscious) profs like the plague (pun intended). But many others, particularly the open-minded, if not gay, teaching assistants, had lasting impact on how I’d look at art, and how I'd come to realize how deeply it's imprinted in human nature.
Take the twisted, contorted, even violent paintings of Francis Bacon –– described by a Brit art historian as the "loudest, rudest, drunkest, most sought-after British artist of the 20th century".
Science proves that at least two-thirds of all stimuli reach the brain visually.
Bacon was openly gay at a time when loving another man was still illegal in the U.K. and Canada. So, instead, he used his brush and paint to express deep, human feeling. As the most famous (and hotly provocative) art critic at the time, 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 still slice right through my consciousness.
Later biographies reveal Bacon’s blustery gay life and disturbed existence, including pushing his fetishist partner, while reportedly consensual, to literally beat the crap out of him, often within breaths of his life. “[Bacon’s work] clamps itself on your nervous system: the pictures come with teeth, and drool you cannot wipe away,” Hughes would write.
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 the recent exhibition, Queer British Art 1861 - 1967, 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, David 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.
Most of all Hockney lead an unapologetic life. “... he 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 many aspiring artists, arming them 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 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.
...Lukaks' sensually transporting compositions spoke to many of us on a new and deeper level. Maybe it was ok to feel this way.
But it was beyond the lecture hall where the power of art––especially when it came to gay and HIV activism––really hit home for me. At Hart House, one of North America’s oldest—and remarkably inclusive—student community centres, friends and me took on active roles in building the university’s art collection. Looking back, this was a transformative experience. In that same zero-apology-Hockney-bent, we discovered Canadian artists like Attila Lukaks whose large scale paintings imaginatively (and stunningly) fused sexual aggression and social deviance with the painterly grandeur of European masters. Unlike those textbook masters, though, Lukaks' sensually transporting compositions spoke to many of us on a new and deeper level. Maybe it was ok to feel this way.
We were emboldened, too, by the audacious, Canadian queer collective, General Idea that deployed artistic gestures even more politically, 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 universally recognized today, the image went viral long before our insta-age of social sharing.
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. Layering various media, metaphors and ideas to powerful, haunting 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.
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 that have made 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 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 study, A look at the Greater Toronto Findings, underscores how stigma and discrimination continue to impact peoples’ lives, their physical and mental health. With negative effects on social connections and income, it’s a barrier that sneakily blocks or slows access to prevention (PrEP), testing and treatment.
Thankfully today, rising up in response and as an urgent reminder, many Canadian artists are making ideas of HIV and stigma central to their work, Dupuis writes. "They're replacing the shame-based past with community strength, zero-apology empowerment and pride."
Dupuis points to Female artist, Jessica Whitbread, who injects her work around HIV with a potent, activist bent. Her 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. 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, daringly snubs the western canon of artmaking altogether––not unlike Bacon and Hockney did decades earlier.
In the current pozcast episode on this site, 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.”
...looking through my rose-colored glasses… I'm literally coloring my vision with HIV.
This freedom, Mikiki explains, helps drive his HIV-specific, or related artwork and ideas––effectually exposing that double-whammy stigma fueled still by prejudiced perceptions of reckless sex and injection drug use.
This art is nurturing a new community value, says Mikiki, centred around the belief that HIV-positive gay men are responsible people, regardless of their 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 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 cut through. They might include his drawing his own blood and spraying it in his eyes. Or blend the gay cult of The Golden Girls and comfort food with uncomfortable conversations on contemporary queer life in his critically acclaimed, Rose Beef drag show.
Yet Mikiki isn’t making art exclusively for the audience. “I’m really doing it for me, looking through my rose-colored glasses… I'm literally coloring my vision with HIV,” he says.
I hear echoes of Francis Bacon, who generations 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 purposefully further tints his activist lens with optimism and hope. “I have never subscribed to the idea that artists need to be in pain to make meaningful or beautiful work," Mikiki makes clear. "There's enough fucking pain out in the world that I can just take a handful of that and throw it into my practice.”
Contributing writer Ted Geatros is a partner at boutique brand experience agency, ConsumptionCo.