Our latest Explore section on the Wellcome Collection website is devoted to a selection of the Wellcome Library’s collection of AIDS posters. These posters, produced during the 1980s and 1990s, show evidence of the enormous and diverse public health campaigns created in response to the AIDS epidemic. In the days before twitter and facebook (and, some would say, even now) the quickest way to alert someone to the dangers of HIV was through an eye-catching, attention-grabbing poster in their place of work or play.
Many of the posters’ messages are familiar. Wear a condom when having sex. Be aware of both risky and safe activities. Don’t shun those who are HIV-positive. Others are less familiar (and angrier), linking AIDS to colonialism and drug company profiteering. But there are commonalities too, and some enduring symbols emerged: in particular the red ribbon, the AIDS Quilt and the pink triangle. The significance of these symbols is discussed in Raymond A. Smith’s Encyclopedia of AIDS, an extraordinary multidisciplinary companion that looks at the medical and cultural history of HIV and AIDS in its entirety.
The AIDS epidemic is not alone in having generated a burgeoning visual culture of its own, and opportunities for artists and designers to join a movement of sorts. Posters created around the wars in the former Yugoslavian nation of Bosnia have been collected in the book Evil Doesn’t Live Here, and more recently anti-war protest posters brought together in Peace Signs. Perhaps some of the most famous posters are those produced by the Atelier Populaire during the French political unrest of May 1968.
You can see some similarities in the graphic style of the Atelier Populaire poster La lutte continue, and this AIDS poster, Think condoms please. The transmutation of one object into another and the incorporation of the slogan within the image are common to both. It’s no accident: the poster was designed by Gérard Paris-Clavel, a member of the Grapus left-wing graphic design collective who were heavily influenced by the art and politics of May 1968.
This is just one of thousands of threads that connect the AIDS posters collection to the world into which HIV emerged unforeseen and unasked for: the world of identity politics, niche marketing, drug cultures, high art and graffiti. William Schupbach’s excellent introduction to is a good place to start exploring the connections.