On the second night of MBLGTACC, one of my fellow UI students and I visited an exhibition titled Art AIDS America Chicago.
A description of the exhibit, from the Alphawood Gallery’s website:
This groundbreaking exhibition underscores the deep and unforgettable presence of HIV in American art. It introduces and explores the whole spectrum of artistic responses to AIDS, from the politically outspoken to the quietly mournful, surveying works from the early 1980s to the present.
I spent a lot of time in museums while growing up and think there are few better ways to spend an afternoon or evening in the city than exploring a new exhibit. It matters, then, that out of all the exhibits I’ve walked through in my lifetime Art AIDS America Chicago was one of my favorites.
Since Chicago was the last stop on the Art AIDS America tour, the exhibit is unfortunately no longer running. I wish it were permanent, though, or that it had traveled to more cities. Even within the LGBTQ+ community, the history of HIV/AIDS is often ignored or glossed over. We have to refuse to let that continue. We must.
Art AIDS America Chicago was a quiet, eloquent, sad, and beautiful. The exhibit took up the entire gallery, but the gallery itself is small. Nevertheless, I spent about two hours wandering through the exhibit, utterly absorbed.
Reading every placard, gazing at every photograph and drawing and painting, and watching the video interviews that continuously played.
Learning so much about the devastating toll AIDS took on our community, and the work done by those who loved and cared for it, in both the city of Chicago and across this country.
An enormous neon sign displaying the pink triangle symbol used by the Nazis to identify gay men during the Holocaust, as well as the activist group ACT UP’s now famous words “silence = death” hung ominously over the main room of the gallery, casting its light over the whole exhibit, impossible not to notice.
It was a very emotional experience. As I moved from room to room in the gallery artwork, documents, and historically significant objects such a piece from the AIDS Memorial Quilt stirred up a multitude of emotions: Fear, despair, anger, melancholy, hope, love.
If anyone had asked me how I felt then, my thoughts would have been difficult to describe. Even now, it’s hard to put my experience into words. I am intensely grateful that such an exhibit was created and that I had the opportunity to visit it. AIDS wiped out much of the generation before me, meaning that there are many I will never know that I would have otherwise been able to meet. Art AIDS America Chicago served to create a link between my community’s elders and me that wasn’t there before.
Photo credit goes to my friend Chloe Cable.