Why We Fight: Remembering AIDS Activism


of an Exhibition

by Emily Connuck

Published on April 20, 2014

  • Description:

    The exhibit Why We Fight: Remembering AIDS Activism at the New York Public Library excellently uses the resources they had to create an informative and fascinating picture of the various fights AIDS activists participated in. When AIDS first appeared, it was conceived of as a disease of gay men and drug users, stigmatizing the disease alongside those who had it, resulting in little organizing and resistance to both preventing and fighting the disease. Why We Fight made those stigmas surrounding AIDS explicitly clear to show why there had to be a fight in the first place, before going into the different methods of resistance, concentrating mostly on political means of fighting back.

    Visually jarring, the exhibit walls and floor are covered in black, white, and bright pink, echoing the colors of the famed ‘Silence=Death’ image used by AIDS Activists in the 1980’s. The colors come together again and are repeated in the display of a Keith Haring print of the pink triangle centered on the back wall of the exhibit, making it one of the first things visitors see as they walk in the room. Although the exhibit itself is small, and located in a single room, it covers a wide variety of what happened. Why We Fight utilizes the library’s extensive collection of AIDS activist materials from their archives, enabling them to display many primary documents and materials from paintings, posters, and videos to buttons and personal photographs. Organized by kinds of action rather than by time, the narrative groups of information are easily accessible. Different displays look at calls for safer sex, public mourning, health care activism, and political protests. A couple videos are shown, heightening the immersive experience. On the back wall viewers can watch as ACT UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) members pour the cremated remains of their dead friends and family members onto the White House lawn making a statement to those who felt far away from the crisis and were not active enough in creating change. Nearby in a display case some very graphic Safer Sex Comix created by the GMHC (Gay Men’s Health Crisis) display a sexier and more comical side of action, geared towards communities already immersed within the crisis. The juxtaposition could seem jarring (sex and comedy v. politics, anger and grief), but in this case it works. Creating the display with the same intermingling and disjunction the AIDS activist movement itself had helps the exhibit capture the strength and diversity of tactics.

    Part of what made the exhibit so exciting was that it did not back away from any of the issues that stopped people from talking about AIDS and acting against it in the first place. It directly confronted the lack information, the politics, and especially the discrimination that caused the crisis to grow so rapidly, all while capturing the spirit of the activism against it, which varied from quiet remembrance to anger to macabre humor. While we have come a long way from the fight pictured in the exhibit, the closing statement points out how the fight against AIDS is far from over. The exhibition takes the important step of reminding the viewer that while the actions seen here may have happened in the past, there is still a fight to be had in the present. Hopefully through seeing the exhibit and what these activists went through can bring some of this kind of action into the future to continue the fight against AIDS.

    The Exhibit runs from October 4, 2013 through April 6, 2014, Stephen A. Schwarzman Building of the New York Public Library.

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