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8 Iconic AIDS Activist Artworks that Changed the Trajectory of the Epidemic


8 Iconic AIDS Activist Artworks that Changed the Trajectory of the Epidemic
"Visual Impact: On Art, AIDS, and Activism" at the New York City AIDS Memorial. Photo by Kris Graves.

The painter Diego Rivera once said, “The role of the artist is that of the soldier of the revolution.” This succinct statement underscores the powerful role that art can play in socio-political uprisings—the activist artist using creativity as a weapon to fight for justice. Rivera’s words resonate particularly with artists' response to the AIDS crises. The initial outbreak of the pandemic in the early ’80s galvanized artists to channel their fear, sadness, and outrage into activist work to publicly address issues of inequality and discrimination, which ultimately enacted change at the legislative level. Today, with the crisis far from over, they continue to use art as a tool to examine the ongoing fight against HIV/AIDS.

This year, to celebrate Pride Month and commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1969 Stonewall riots, the New York City AIDS Memorial has partnered with the NYC Department of Transportation’s Art Program to create Visual Impact: On Art, AIDS, and Activism—an educational public art installation located in Manhattan's West Village adjacent to the NYC AIDS Memorial Park on Greenwich Avenue (between West 12th Street and 7th Avenue). Visual Impact comprises large-scale art displays showcasing eight iconic works addressing the AIDS crisis from the mid-1980s through today, continuing the long-standing tradition of installing public art to inform and promote awareness. Each artwork is accompanied by text that provides historical context and illuminates this important history for viewers, specifically younger generations. The site-specific installation will be on display in the West Village through December 1, 2019 (World AIDS Day).

Here, we’ve excerpted the text, and included images, from Visual Impact to provide a brief chronological history of the AIDS crisis in New York City:


General Idea, AIDS , 1987. Image via

The history of HIV/AIDS is more than a fight for public health—it’s also a fight for human rights. In July of 1981, the New York Times published an article detailing a new disease expressly linking the “rapidly fatal form of cancer” to the gay community in New York City. Early AIDS patients suffered from bigotry and discrimination while government agencies and the medical industry willfully ignored the epidemic. Within a year, the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) was founded after an informal meeting at the 2 Fifth Avenue home of playwright and activist Larry Kramer. The organization sought to provide grassroots crisis counseling, fundraising, and legal aid for those affected by the disease within the gay community.


The Silence = Death Project, Silence = Death, 1986. Image via

In an era steeped in homophobia, speaking up for the gay community and for those living with HIV/AIDS wasn’t only a call for pride versus prejudice—it was a battle cry for life versus death. In 1983, Dr. Joseph Sonnabend, who pioneered community-based research trials for AIDS drugs, successfully fought his co-op board’s attempt to evict him from his West Twelfth Street office in the nation’s first AIDS anti-discrimination case. The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), founded in 1987 at the LGBT Community Center on Thirteenth Street, focused on direct political action. Their goal was to raise awareness and to pressure the government and medical industry to increase research initiatives and “get drugs into bodies.”


Gerald Jampolsky, MD, and Diane Cirincione, PhD, with illustrator Jack Keeler, I Have AIDS - Please Hug Me - I Can't Make You Sick, 1987. Image via  

The idea that all individuals, regardless of their identity, are susceptible to HIV/AIDS was emphasized by activists, including the creators of the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, which was first laid on the National Mall in Washington, DC, in 1987. Today, the quilt memorializes over 94,000 individuals from diverse demographics who lost their lives to AIDS-related causes. Cultural stigmas toward sex and sexuality have limited the reach of public health campaigns focused on safe sex and risk reduction. The FDA’s 1987 decision to allow manufacturers to publicly advertise condom usage as a preventative measure against the spread of HIV/AIDS was a critical step—not only in empowering people to protect themselves and others from the disease but also in normalizing public conversations surrounding sex and sexuality. 


Keith Haring, Stop AIDS, 1989. Image via

The ongoing prejudice against those living with AIDS was reflected in the lack of adequate government funding for research and prevention. Following years of clinical trials, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) finally approved a new medication, Zidovudine (AZT), for the treatment of HIV/AIDS. In early 1989, ACT UP staged a “Kiss In” at St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York City, shutting down traffic on Seventh Avenue in protest of the discriminatory treatment of HIV-positive LGBT couples within the hospital. This direct and powerful action made it clear to the medical industry that those living with HIV/AIDS, as well as their loved ones, would fight against injustice.


 Avram Finkelstein and the What Is Undetectable Flash Collective, What Is Undetectable?, 2014. Image via 

Gaining access to proper medical care was just one of the many hardships faced by those living with HIV/AIDS during the height of the crisis. In 1990, Congress passed the Americans with Disabilities Act, under which those living with HIV/AIDS were finally granted legal protections against discrimination. Previous to this important legislation, many people lost their jobs, apartments, and even access to funeral burials—all because of their HIV-positive status.


Catherine Opie, AIDS Activist from the 700 Nimes Road Portfolio, 2010-2011. Image via

In the early 1990s, as public awareness began to grow around the AIDS crisis, the New York–based collective Visual AIDS Artists’ Caucus created the Red Ribbon Project. Designed as a symbol to raise consciousness, the crossed red ribbon would come to represent both the great loss of lives from the epidemic and the strength and passion of those fighting AIDS. Through the tireless activism of community leaders, artists, and journalists, governments began to take notice and expand their responses to the HIV/AIDS crisis across the globe. In 1994, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS) was founded as the first UN program to directly address vulnerable communities, particularly women and children in developing countries.


 Brendan Fernandes, In PrEP We Trust?, 2016. Image via

Today approximately 37 million people worldwide still live with HIV, about 22 million of whom have access to treatment. Education and fundraising are still critical to the fight against AIDS, providing support for on-the-ground prevention and breakthrough medical research. In 2012, the FDA approved Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP), which considerably decreases the risk of infection for those who are HIV-negative. Although price, awareness, and availability remain major obstacles to accessing PrEP for many, the new prophylactic medication has created new hope for an AIDS-free future.


 fierce pussy for Visual AIDS, For The Record, 2013. Image via

Every year, on December 1, World AIDS Day is observed around the globe in remembrance of the generations of men, women, and children who lost their lives to the disease and as a reminder that the epidemic is not over. In an ongoing effort to remove stigma and provide care for those still fighting, communities continue to come together to hold marches, vigils, educational programs, and fundraising events. The legacy of AIDS activism in New York City has been (and continues to be) one of pride, resilience, and dedication—bringing a loud, clear voice to the fight for our lives.



Light the Fight! Jenny Holzer's Demonstration to Fight AIDS and "Reignite Fires" in NYC

Why Does The New York City AIDS Memorial Matter? Read Testimonials From Leading Cultural Figures

"Shut Down Our Clinics And We Will Shut Down Your ‘Church’": David Wojnarowicz's Writing On The AIDS Epidemic That Took His Own Life


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