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Art, Protest and AIDS

Throughout history, art has continually been utilised to spur on social activism and protest. No event in history better illustrates this than the start of the AIDS epidemic in the late 20th Century.

Whilst much of society distanced themselves from the problem, those in the LGBTQ+ community and allies carried the burden of educating and campaigning on the AIDS epidemic. Little was done by authorities, particularly in the UK and the US, as there was a common misconception that AIDS was a ‘gay disease'. This reluctance and inability to act and help individuals with AIDS reflects the mistreatment of gay men in particular at the time.

Much of the work done by campaign groups was carried out through protests, but art played a pivotal role in spreading the word on AIDS, and in disseminating information as research on the initially mysterious disease evolved.

One of the most influential artists involved, Keith Haring, has become iconic for his work as an AIDS activist. Haring used his platform, and later his experience of living as a gay man with AIDS, to produce an estimate of 10,000 works of art, many focusing on safe sex and supporting groups such as ACT UP (AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power). Haring focused on educating people on the importance of safe sex, alongside criticising those who remained ignorant on the disease, as this only fed into AIDS-related homophobia and fear.

© Keith Haring Foundation

Haring sadly passed away in 1990 from AIDS-related complications. However, his legacy is still strong today, with the Keith Haring Foundation, which he set up in 1989, continuing to support AIDS focused not-for-profits, as well as preserving Haring’s work.

In 2018, it was estimated that there were 37.9 million people living with AIDS globally. Those living with AIDS in the UK now have access to effective treatment that can lower the level of HIV in their blood. This means they have an undetectable viral load, therefore making their HIV untransmittable. Treatment also means those living with AIDS can live full lives.

Unfortunately, there remains some persistent stigma associated with AIDS. Many individuals continue to have negative attitudes towards, or false beliefs about individuals with AIDS, for example the belief that only gay men can contract HIV.

Moving forward, it is important that we remember those who we have sadly lost to the AIDS epidemic, as well as remembering the work of Haring and other activists who worked endlessly to educate on AIDS. We must continue to dismantle ignorance surrounding the disease and educate people on safe sex, prevention and treatment.

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