Activists Unite Against AIDS Stigma


AIDS Memorial Quilt

Two 12'x12' panels of the AIDS Memorial Quilt were on display on Dec. 1, 2011 in recognition of World AIDS Day 2011.

There’s no better symbol of AIDS activism than the AIDS Memorial Quilt, which gave a face to the disease — several thousand faces. The quilt was established 20 years ago as a way to raise awareness of the toll AIDS continues to take in lives.

Today, there are myriad other ways to unite around a common cause — yet many of these ways, including a virtual quilt composed of digital panels, take the same form.

The AIDS Memorial Quilt, which was created in 19tk by the NAMES Project Foundation, weighs 54 tons and contains more than 47,000 panels dedicated to more than 90,000 people who died from the disease. The panels are as varied as the people they represent. Some patches are simple — the deceased’s name in bold — while others were made with fabric paint, articles of clothing and photographs, and look almost like postcards.

The foundation aims to display the quilt in nearly 1,000 venues each year. This year, the Museum of Sex on Fifth Avenue and 27th Street was one of those venues. As one of the only museums in the country dedicated exclusively to the history, evolution and cultural significance of sex, the museum plays an important role in promoting and educating the public about safe sex. Last year, the museum hosted an exhibit titled “Rubbers: The Life, History & Struggle of the Condom.”

In recognition of World AIDS Day, the museum recently displayed two 12’x12’ panels of the AIDS Memorial Quilt. One hung in the window, while the other was spread out on the floor of the gift shop and cordoned off — making it the first piece patrons saw as they entered the building.

Though the museum charges $17.50 for general admission, one of its year-round services is free.

“We are always giving away free condoms and lube,” said museum employee Deitrich Davis, 31, of Brooklyn. “It keeps everyone safe — it’s not like it’s for the money. Some places wouldn’t do that.”

Occasionally, the condoms serve as souvenirs. Davis says he estimates that 60 percent of visitors to the museum hail from outside the country.

“Some people take [the condoms] for gifts because of the NYC logo [on the packaging],” Davis added. “Some people just go grab a handful and leave. I personally don’t believe people should have to pay for condoms. It’s about protecting life.”

On Dec. 1, World AIDS Day, visitors of the Museum of Sex could help themselves to two well-stocked bowls of condoms on either side of the quilt. They could also take a red AIDS memorial ribbon as they walked through the door. The museum kept a stack of flyers at the admissions desk with information about HIV testing locations and times.

Throughout the day, museum employees also collected donations from patrons for the AIDS Memorial Quilt and Visual AIDS on 26th Street, an organization founded in 1987 that uses art to fight AIDS by holding panel discussions, film screenings and art exhibitions. On Dec. 1, 1989, it introduced Day Without Art, in which performance groups — including Bill T. Jones’s dance company — postponed their sold-out events in observance of the day. In more recent years, the name was changed to Day With(out) Art, as cultural events were found to be a more effective way of addressing the human cost of AIDS.

Today, Visual AIDS continues to add to its archive of artwork by artists with HIV and AIDS. The Archive Project at Visual AIDS, which began as a slide library, is now being converted into a digital database projected to contain more than 15,000 images by 2012. Anyone can make an appointment to see the archive privately at the organization’s Chelsea office.

“That archive project is the heart and soul of Visual AIDS,” said executive director Amy Sadao. “It’s both its own discreet public resource, history project, living project, and also a service to HIV positive artists.”

This type of digital catalogue seems to be a trend. Sister AIDS organizations (RED) and ONE created a virtual patchwork called the (2015)QUILT. The multimedia project is composed of images made and submitted by businesspeople, celebrities, activists and other supporters — all of whom can then post their panel on Facebook and Twitter.

The digital quilt, created with media company, was “designed to bring people from all over the world together to fight for a historic achievement — the delivery of the first AIDS free generation,” according to a joint press release.

The government’s Facing AIDS gallery contains over a thousand images of people holding signs with supportive messages written on them. One of the most common among them: “I am Facing AIDS.”

Digital media also plays a role in the Postcards from the Edge fundraiser at Visual AIDS. Now in its 14th year, the annual exhibit of postcard-sized works has grown “exponentially,” according to Sadao. Buyers receive a list of artists featured in the exhibit, but the name of the artists is written on the back. Not until the purchase is it revealed.

The exhibit’s first year saw fewer than 300 postcard entries. In recent years, the organization has received more than 1,600 submissions. The postcards now sell for $85 apiece, $35 more than in previous years.

Sadao attributes this growth partly to the reach of social media. In the first phase of the project, Visual AIDS posted announcements on its own website. Today, those announcements would be reposted by patrons and artists, tweeted and linked — leading to “greater diversity and a greater reach.”

“What’s still interesting is that artists are still physically making postcards and donating them, and people are still physically coming to purchase those in person,” she added. “Not to mention the scores of volunteers who make this event possible, who physically come to the Visual AIDS office and give each card a number and record the information so we are able to hang 1,600 individual works and sell them anonymously.”