There is something terrifying about the speed at which people forget a genocide that swept the globe and wiped away a generation. Perhaps it is the nature of trauma itself; once the emergency lets up, the mind just wants to forget. You want to move on, you want to breathe, you want to live—because so many no longer do and there’s no way to make sense of it. Why him? Why her? Why not me? These questions cannot be answered in the moment. We simply need to be.
In 1981, the public reports began to hit the United States. A new disease was ravaging immune systems, causing violent, early deaths—but what was it? The U.S. Centers for Disease Control did not have a name; they referred to it by the various manifestations the virus took in those grueling early days. The CDC thought they were clever in calling it “the 4H disease,” since the syndrome was most commonly observed in heroin users, male homosexuals, hemophiliacs, and Haitians. But that failed miserably. Not only was it stigmatizing already marginalized groups but it was steeped in ignorance.
A year later, they gave it a name: AIDS. And that’s when the panic set in, and the genocide took shape, infecting over 70 million people and killing half that number. Those early years were devastating. Between the medical misinformation, religious condemnation, and the Reagan government’s refusal to help, was the painful reality of a brutal gruesome illness that all-too-often ended in death.
Throughout the 1980s, AIDS was an ever-present specter of destruction that left is victims abandoned to fend for themselves. As a result, the victims had to fend for themselves, creating a community that rallied long and hard to help those most in need. Through the actions of medical volunteers, activists, and artists fighting tirelessly, the tide began to turn, though by then so much had been lost. And then it was forgotten. But not any longer.
The Bronx Museum of the Arts presents Art AIDS America, the first museum exhibition to examine the impact of the AIDS crisis on American art and culture, on view now through October 23, 2016. The exhibition features more than 125 works by artists including Ross Bleckner, Robert Mapplethorpe, Andres Serrano, Keith Haring, Félix González-Torres, Derek Jackson, Kia Labeija, Annie Leibovitz, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Martin Wong. The exhibition is co-curated by Jonathan David Katz, Director, Visual Studies Doctoral Program at the University at Buffalo, The State University of New York; and Rock Hushka, Chief Curator at the Tacoma Art Museum.
Holly Block, Executive Director of The Bronx Museum of the Arts, observed, “These artists give voice to perspectives that are too often suppressed, and the exhibition reveals how they have changed both the history of art in America and the response to this disease.”
Sergio Bessa, Director of Curatorial and Education Programs, added, “The AIDS crisis has particular resonance in our region and in the Bronx, and we continue to feel the impact of HIV/AIDS. Through our presentation of this exhibition and a series of community engagement programs, we will promote dialog with our community on a topic that has been stigmatized for decades.”
The questions are easy: Why did it take so long to mount a museum show? Why did so many institutions turn it down? The answers are hard. Few are willing to speak truth to power and become the voice for the dead, for the great many men and women who should be home right now with their families, their children, and grandchildren. But one fact remains, reverberating off the walls, speaking to us from across the grave, and we must heed its call: Silence = Death, like ACT UP said.
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.