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July 17, 2019

Some History of HIV/AIDS in Art/Design and Community Action, the ACT UP Oral History Project, and Comics as Public Health Tools—Raina Wellman, BFA Graphic Design, 2019

by Raina Wellman
ACT UP ad hoc Gay Pride Committee 1989

For a portion of my Maharam Fellowship I am working on expanding my research, archive, and writing relating to the relationships between pandemic disease, art, design, community action, and stigma.  The paper I am working on is titled, “Cultures of Paranoia and Repair: Art History and Pandemic Disease.” Dr. Matthew Landrus, a research fellow of the history of art department and faculty of history at Oxford (as well as a Wintersession professor at RISD) has advised me on the project. I’ll be sharing a small portion of that work in this blog post.

My research project addresses disease, its initial historical contexts, and the socio-cultural material that has been produced in response to illness. Disease is a powerful circumstance, it generates more than just physical sickness. It results in shifting cultural perceptions and has historically been used as an instrument for often exclusionary, xenophobic political policy as well as the integration of religious moral values. By focusing on disease’s ability to shape culture I hope to do three things:

  1. To create a collection of visual culture as it has responded to illness.
  2. To combat, as well as reveal, historic and contemporary processes of othering and stigmatization in response to disease.
  3. To inspire political organization and artistic action as a method of disease prevention and education.

A large portion of my research has been dedicated to HIV/AIDs. This is because of the availability and breadth of contemporary documentation of the pandemic, as well as it’s lasting impact on communities to this day. The HIV/AIDS pandemic produced a great deal of important public health engagement, grassroots organization, and important art and design reaction. The disease also revealed a repeat of historic disease reactions, processes of confusion, stigmatization, fear, and eventually a path to repair. Notably, this repair was partially thanks to the art that informed public health engagement and community action.

Homophobia, anti-drug sentiment, and other “ugly feelings” helped to develop the toxic cultural response to AIDS, as Sontag wrote in 1989, “A whole politics of ‘the will’—of intolerance, of paranoia, of fear of political weakness—has fastened on this disease [AIDS].” (Susan Sontag Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors, 151) All this was not helped by the fact that as observed by Sontag, “AIDS is an illness that in this part of the world afflicts minorities, racial and sexual.” (Susan Sontag Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors, 171)

The posters above reveal some of the massive confusion and fear in response to the HIV epidemic. These public health information campaigns explain that AIDS infection cannot be spread via public pools, restaurants, hand holding, public telephone usage, cup sharing, big bites, and other day-to-day things. Evidently, stigmatization and generalized panic had reached into home life, workplaces, and lifestyle.

Likely beginning in 1970, the HIV infection (which develops into acquired immune deficiency or AIDS) spread around the world and infected people from all races and ethnicities, though higher incidence of disease occurred in isolated communities. For much of the outbreak, HIV was considered a gay disease with certain attention payed to infected intravenous drug users.

Much of my research on the disease centers on NYC beginning in 1981. NYC was a hub for community public health action and a great deal of information as well as documentation of the epidemic is available from that place and time. The disease, like other epidemics, was marked by confusion, stigmatization, and delayed action.

AIDS was first identified in 1984. As observed in the Museum of the City of New York exhibit, “Germ City”, “government inaction on both the local and federal levels and punitive laws that criminalized people living with HIV sparked intense advocacy by the New York communities most impacted by the disease, including gay men and people of color.” An unpredictable and difficult to treat retrovirus, HIV/AIDS deaths in NYC peaked in 1993 and 1994.

A dripping blood transfusion bag with the warning ‘ensure it is AIDS free’ and a pink ticket bearing the lettering ‘Certified HIV free’; an advertisement issued by Ortho Diagnostic Systems 1998.
President George HW Bush and Barbara Pierce Bush represented as members of “the Rich White Penis Club”, with speech bubbles anti-government protest about US AIDS policies by Enema Productions Photocopy.

In an environment of widespread homophobia, governmental silence, and apparent apathy, the numbers of dying patients intensified. Patchwork community-based voluntary service organizations were the only real response to the needs of the sick and dying in North America. Dr. Alvin E. Friedman-Kien was a dermatologist at NYU Langone Health and one the leaders in healthcare response to AIDS. In an interview with CNN he recalled, “The attitude was, these (diseases) are only in gays and IV drug users, underdogs, people who didn’t deserve any special attention… It wasn’t until the hemophiliacs developed PCP pneumonia and other opportunistic infections that the government suddenly felt they were victims.”

K Woodard for ACT UP, 1989

Michael O’Brien for ACT UP, 1990.

Direct action groups like the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) consisted of activists and graphic artists who, according to McKay were able to, “[succeed] in challenging the view that AIDS was universally fatal and in changing the contours of treatment access.” (Patient Zero and the Making of AIDS by McKay, 16) Such action was incredibly important. They also assisted in organizing protests and widespread community action.

Advert created by Gran Fury.

Gran Fury was an artist collective that affiliated with ACT UP. They created publicly accessible media such as shirts, buttons, stickers, posters, billboards, and flyers in order to call for action and educate wide audiences. One of the members and designers behind Gran Fury, Avram Finkelstein wrote about the group’s creative process:

“In advertising, all images are coded, but the image we sought needed to act as a signal beacon to its lesbian and gay audience without excluding other audiences. An icon would not only liberate us from the complexities of representation but also enable us to draw on existing queer codes. In some ways, this might have been easy, since to be queer is in many ways to coexist with codes. But it was not easy at all. We tore through, debated, and rejected every agreed-on symbol for the lesbian and gay community: the rainbow, the labrys, the lambda, and the triangle. All of them had baggage, and on some level we were uncomfortable with each of them.” (Excerpt From: Avram Finkelstein. “After Silence.” 110).

SILENCE=DEATH and pink triangle.

In his book about Gran Fury and ACT UP, Finkelstein shares interesting perspectives on graphic design and activist action. Along with valuable perspectives on typography, he shares recollections relating to the creation of politically charged design pieces for the purposes of raising awareness, organizing, and fundraising. Finkelstein wrote about the inherently political nature of Gran Fury as an art/design collective:

“We were a consciousness-raising group, but as our meetings dug deeper, I felt we were bordering on a political collective, and within the constraints of our own uniformity of privilege, we spent a lot of time exploring how race and gender were being foregrounded or ignored in media depictions of AIDS and in public policy.” (Excerpt From: Avram Finkelstein. “After Silence.” 98).

To anyone interested in learning more about the visual culture and circumstance, Finkelstein’s book provides one very valuable perspective.

A series of condom adverts/posters created by nonprofits, government agencies, artists, and corporations (including the condom brand Durex).

Following the AIDS epidemic, promoting condom usage became a crucial public health tool (and it still is to this day for HIV prevention as well as other STIs/STDs). As observed by the health researcher, A. G. Salem, “AIDS brought condoms back to the forefront during the 1980s. In 1987, the FDA began to test latex condoms for leaks which resulted in improved quality condoms.” The posters above reveal varied approaches formally and  conceptually to condom promotion in response to HIV around the world

And it still isn’t… AIDS continues to be a public health issue.
According to the International Center of Photography, “For the third in a series of demonstrations that ACT UP organized against the commission, Donald Moffett made this poster of Reagan, with words that concisely communicated the group’s thoughts about the President’s effect on AIDS patients.”

I have a great deal more to share, but for the purposes of space and time I am going to shift directions.

Today, conversations about HIV/AIDS have shifted, but it remains a troubling disease with major cultural impact. New developments like PrEP or pre-exposure prohylaxis, allow people “at risk” to reduce the risk of HIV infection by taking a daily pill. Attempts at developing a vaccination against the disease have not yet been effective.

During my time walking around NYC and using the subway I’ve spotted a few public service posts and advertisements, one of which you can see below. It’s interesting to see the ways in which graphic styles and communication have shifted since the initial epidemic.

I saw this in NYC this weekend. leads to a website advertising BIKTARVY, a prescription medicine pill used to treat HIV-1 in adults.

Since I am currently working with the New York Health Department, I thought it would be a good time to share this comic series they created for the AIDS epidemic and another they recently created to encourage conversation regarding mental health particularly in queer communities. The comic style is a creative technique to share important information in an engaging way.

Most (if not all) of the advertising created by the New York Health Department is in both English and Spanish.

In addition to this visual communications research I’ve also begun diving into the ACT UP Oral History Project. As they write on their website, “The ACT UP Oral History Project is a collection of interviews with surviving members of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, New York. The project is coordinated by Jim Hubbard and Sarah Schulman, with principal camera work by James Wentzy and additional camerawork on the West Coast by S. Leo Chiang and Tracy Wares.” The purpose of the project is to, “present comprehensive, complex, human, collective, and individual pictures of the people who have made up ACT UP/New York. These men and women of all races and classes have transformed entrenched cultural ideas about homosexuality, sexuality, illness, health care, civil rights, art, media, and the rights of patients. They have achieved concrete changes in medical and scientific research, insurance, law, health care delivery, graphic design, and introduced new and effective methods for political organizing. These interviews reveal what has motivated them to action and how they have organized complex endeavors. We hope that this information will de-mystify the process of making social change, remind us that change can be made, and help us understand how to do it.”

It is truly an incredible resource. You can access it at this virtual location:

I’ve also been planning a field trip to the site of ACT UP’s physical archive, which they donated to New York Public Library’s Rare Books and Manuscript Division.

I truly believe that the legacy of ACT UP and other AIDS activists can provide important lessons in community action for needed change, particularly in health care.  I’m certainly dedicated to pursuing this idea more deeply…

I also believe that their approach to visual communication is truly notable. If my archive of over 200 images is correct, they were able to create content that was effective, personal/emotional, and often visually appealing. I would like to see more of this creative approach in contemporary public health communications.

A series anonymously created in the late 1980s.

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