Visual AIDS: 'Up Against the Wall: Art, Activism, and the AIDS Poster'

by Jim Provenzano

Bay Area Reporter

Thursday November 25, 2021

December 1 is the annual World AIDS Day observance. An estimated 78 million people have become infected with HIV, and 35 million people have died of AIDS-related illnesses since 1981.

"Up Against the Wall: Art, Activism, and the AIDS Poster" documents selected graphic art posters used as preventative advice or protest art through the AIDS pandemic. Donald Albrecht edited the book with Jessica Lacher-Feldman and William M. Valenti M.D., (hardcover, 232 pages, 187 illustrations).

The book has an accompanying online exhibit, with an in-person version in Rochester, New York next year.

"Up Against the Wall" documents the impact of the pandemic with nearly 200 examples of AIDS educational posters from around the world. It also visualizes the social activism that continues to bring awareness to a disease that is still without a vaccine or cure.

The posters, spanning the years from 1982 to the present, show how social, religious, civic, and public health agencies addressed the controversial, often contested terrain of the HIV/AIDS pandemic within the public realm.

Some of the imagery is familiar to patrons of gay bars, or New York City and San Francisco streets, when ACT UP posters were wheat-pasted all over various neighborhoods.

Three of the posters included in 'Up Against the Wall'
Three of the posters included in 'Up Against the Wall'  

International posters may seem quaint by comparison, but each caters to cultural variances by using different tactics; some scary and forceful, others whimsical and cartoonish.

Organizations and creators tailored their messages to audiences, both broad and very specific, and used a wide array of strategies, employing emotion, simple scientific explanations (in some, sexual imagery), and many other methods to communicate powerfully and effectively.

Comparisons between pandemic are inevitable. While AIDS prevention posters had to be placed either guerilla-style or with a venue's permission, COVID-19 information and vaccines have become widely available. At its peak, the AIDS pandemic had its tiny cluster of denialists and refuseniks. But that pandemic didn't endure multiple global protests and riots by 'COVID-iots' who refuse to wear a facemask.

The collection of posters in the book are chosen from more than 8,000 held in the collection in the University of Rochester's River Campus Libraries' Department of Rare Books, Special Collections, and Preservation. The collection, one of the largest of its kind in the world, was donated to the University of Rochester by Dr. Edward Atwater.

While scholarly in its focus, the text is readable to a wider audience, and makes an essential addition to any collector of health-focused and activist art.

The AIDS Education Posters Collection is viewable online as well at
aep.lib.rochester.edu

An exhibition of the same name will be on view at the Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, New York, March 6-June 19, 2022.
mag.rochester.edu/exhibitions/up-against-the-wall

"Up Against the Wall: Art, Activism, and the AIDS Poster," 232 pages $50. www.rit.edu/press/against-wall


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