Documenting Thirty Years of AIDS, Art Creates a Different Kind of History

Published: December 12, 2011

It was the summer of 1981. After several reported cases of a new strain of Kaposi’s sarcoma and a number of reports of pneumocystis among gay men, the Centers for Disease Control published a report. This is often referred to as the start of general awareness of AIDS in the U.S.—although it was still an unnamed illness with an unknown cause.

Now, three decades later, how do we reflect on thirty years of AIDS for those who lived through it, those who didn’t, and those too young to remember much of it? A Philadelphia man responds with a one-of-a-kind exhibit of visual art. David Acosta, a writer, poet, and veteran AIDS activist, is curating Witness: Artists Reflect on 30 Years of the AIDS Pandemic, a free multimedia exhibition featuring the work of twenty-three artists exploring the impact of AIDS on all of us. The show is on display in Philadelphia from December 2, 2011 through January 27, 2012 at Asian Arts Initiative, an arts center that engages artists and everyday people to create art that imagines and effects positive community change.

Looking back, Acosta remembers his initial reaction to the disease. “I was twenty-three that year. I had no idea how HIV/AIDS itself would come to define so much of my personal life, the experience of several generations of gay men, and ultimately how much it would impact people throughout the world.” The artists he selected for Witness represent a diverse gathering of voices across race, age, gender, sexual orientation, and geographic location. “Witness asks the audience to reflect on the HIV/AIDS epidemic as a transformative moment in our lives, our communities and society,” Acosta explains. “It calls artists to reengage

Harvey Finkle, Day Without Art, 1994, silver gel print, 12 by 18 inches
themselves in remembering and honoring the pervasive global influence of HIV and AIDS.” The curator made a determined effort to solicit young artists and target a youthful audience for this show, in light of the recent rise in HIV infection rates among young gay males—especially men of color.

An HIV/AIDS worker since the early years of the epidemic, Acosta, fifty-three, established Philadelphia’s Gay and Lesbian Latino AIDS Education Initiative (GALAEI), one of the oldest organizations in the country serving the LGBT Latino community. He is a founding member of Our Living Legacy, the nation’s first festival devoted to art and AIDS. Acosta is currently the artistic director of Casa de Duende, an organization that produces art exhibits and performances focusing on the social relevance of art and the artist in contemporary culture. Witness is facilitated by Acosta, under the auspices of Casa de Duende. The genesis for Witness was Acosta’s interest in the artistic responses to AIDS. “Artists were some of the first individuals to give voice to what was happening,” he recalls. So he asked a group of artists to mark this milestone with original work or works created specifically to address the issues surrounding HIV/AIDS.

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