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Art as a Political Tool During the AIDS Pandemic

by Lucas Ind | 16 December 2021

The first day of this month was World AIDS Day – designated on December 1st annually since 1988, as an international day dedicated to spreading awareness of AIDS and mourning the loss of those who have died of the disease. Furthermore, 2021 marks 40 years since the first case of HIV was identified in America, an event shaping the queer community and the world ever since and which will continue to do so forever.


The disease crept through communities at the very fringes of society – homeless people, intravenous drug users and the queer community – often in large cities and often with terrifying consequences and seemingly without a real cause. The combination of victims being from large cities and belonging to groups who skirted the values espoused by conservatives, allowed for a culture of fear to dissipate around the disease.


Victims became immediate pariahs and the slow pace of treatments and lack of solid research meant that the only source from where the general public learnt of the disease was sensationalist tabloid articles based purely on hearsay and misinformation. This fear was brutally weaponised by conservative politicians, who celebrated with an almost fanatical zeal and solidified misconceptions about the queer community being an inferior underclass.


In the United Kingdom, this manifested itself in a small addition to a local government bill, known as ‘Section 28’, which banned any person in an educational setting from talking about homosexuality or implying in any way that it was normal or to be accepted.


Margaret Thatcher personally intervened to prevent television appeals about AIDS and the queer community continued to struggle as the virus cut through its core. The struggle of the community at this time and the ignorance of mainstream political and media figures in talking about the illness led to queer artists documenting their experiences through art, turning their pain and anger into a new form of liberation.


After being diagnosed with HIV/AIDS in 1988, Keith Haring, known for his stylised graffiti-like murals, began using his work to campaign for safer sex and spread awareness about the illness. In the same year, a collective of artists involved with the ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) grassroots movement, established by Gran Fury, in direct response to the institutional silencing surrounding the pandemic purposefully intervened into public art and advertising space to raise awareness of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Haring’s 1989 poster Ignorance = Fear, Silence = Death was used to promote the message of ACT UP. Haring died of AIDS-related complications a year later in 1990.

Keith Haring, Ignorance = Fear, Silence = Death, 1989

Robert Mapplethorpe, a photographer who pioneered homoeroticism and capturing male beauty, died of AIDS in 1989 aged 42. Amongst the sexual liberation and freewheeling creativity that 1970s New York harboured, Mapplethorpe rose to prominence as an emerging photographer. He captured a new representation of queerness and the male form, which often shocked his contemporaries as he conflated religious imagery with explicit and sexualised nude photography. However, as AIDS began to spread, political figures such as Republican senator Jesse Helms regarded the virus as a ‘punishment’ for homosexuality. By 1989, Mapplethorpe’s work had been censored by Helms, resulting in his work at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington D.C. being removed from public view. Just as Mapplethorpe died, his legacy was stripped.


Fellow New York artist Félix Gonzáles-Torres created Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) 1991, to mourn the loss of his partner, Ross Laycock, who had died in 1988 following a short struggle with AIDS. Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) consists of a pile of sweets individually wrapped in multicolour cellophane. When displayed, the pile should weigh 175 pounds – Laycock’s body weight when he was healthy. Viewers of this piece are encouraged to take a sweet, and the exhibit is replenished by museum staff. Therefore, Gonzáles-Torres has metaphorically been granted perpetual life. Equally, the replenishing is reflective of the cyclical nature of the virus, and in taking a sweet, the viewer (and therefore society) is responsible for his diminishment. Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) bypassed Helms’s censorship due to its implicit and indirect message – in turn, this allowed for this piece to be exhibited in museums across America. Gonzáles-Torres thus weaponised his artwork as a response to censorship and through indirect, complex metaphors managed to get his message and his pain into the museum circuit, engaging with a wider audience. Gonzáles-Torres died in 1996 due to complications from AIDS.

Felix Gonzáles-Torres, Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.), 1991, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL, USA

Despite currently living through a more recent pandemic as a result of Covid-19, that has forever changed our own society, it is important that we do not lose sight of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Furthermore, despite living in a more tolerant society towards queer issues, there continues to be a lingering stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS due to a lack of information and knowledge. We need to continue to discuss the impact of the AIDS crisis and remember and retell the voices of a lost generation of the queer community.

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