A graphic battle

British Deaf Association, 'The best lovers are good with their hands'. Wellcome Library/Wellcome Images

British Deaf Association, 'The best lovers are good with their hands'. Wellcome Library/Wellcome Images

Today is World AIDS Day. First held in 1988 to raise awareness of HIV and the AIDS pandemic, December 1 has since been the day on which we remember those who the virus has taken from us and spread awareness of efforts to fight the illness (a fight that continues: see Tackling the spread of HIV in South Africa on the Wellcome Trust blog)

Earlier this year, we published on the Wellcome Collection website a selection of AIDS posters, based on the Wellcome Library’s collection of AIDS posters, the fourth largest in the world. The posters contain many of the highly recognisable visual symbols that we have come to associate with the battle against AIDS: the red ribbon, the AIDS Quilt, and the imagery of HIV-positive artist Keith Haring, as well as reminders that the fight against AIDS has also often involved controversy.

Today, when thousands follow the activities of World Aids Day on Twitter, and the internet is our primary source of information about sexual health, it seems strange to imagine a time when the primary method of communication about AIDS might be printed material. But, as William Schupbach reminds us in his introduction to the selection, “paper posters continued because of their greater presence, durability and immediacy in the real world of the street, the nightclub and the support group”. And so, even today, we might still do well to look to posters, leaflets and other printed material to communicate a potentially life-saving message.

If you’re interested in researching AIDS posters further, the Wellcome Collection and Library are not the only places you can find AIDS posters online. AVERT’s collection of historical AIDS posters goes back to 1984, including posters passing on the vital message of how HIV couldn’t be contracted. UCLA’s Louise M. Darling Biomedical Library has a searchable online database of posters (don’t let the fearsome library interface put you off finding some gems in here, with very generous resolution images).

The website for the current Graphic Intervention exhibition at Massachusetts College of Art and Design also offers a gallery of well-annotated, diverse and striking images. And in printed form you can find Visual Strategies Against AIDS, based on the exhibition and collection of posters at the Museum of Design in Zurich.

It’s worth sparing a few moments on World AIDS Day to think not only about the medical battle against the pandemic, but also about the extraordinary creative efforts that have gone into representing the struggle against the virus, and to reflect on the extraordinary power of these images.

Dem Bones

Skeletons, Crisóstomo Martínez

Skeletons, Crisóstomo Martínez

Though its shape is intimately familiar, we’ll never see our own, and rarely catch a glimpse of anyone else’s. The skeleton, the form of the human body stripped of all flesh and organs, is the subject of our latest Explore topic. It lasts long after the rest of our remains have gone: you might recall these Roman-era, medieval and 19th-century skeletons from our Skeletons exhibition in 2008; but the skeleton also has a rich life in health and medical imagery.

The idea that the skeleton stands for death couldn’t be clearer than in this Indian poster warning of the fatal risk of AIDS; but morality also has its connections with mortality, as shown in this rather misogynistic 17th-century portrait of death in the guise of a seductress. Skeletons are also used to warn of the perils of vanity in life, the inevitable end that awaits this English nobleman, or this pair of beautiful silver skeletons that are themselves a warning of the transience of luxury.

Not all skeletons are forbidding, however. This small paper mache skeleton is from a Mexican Day of the Dead celebration, a time when sweets and toys in the shape of skulls and skeletons are made to honour and remember the dead. We might also think that we know how a skeleton should look, but that depends on how you see it, as this Persian illustration of the skeletal system from Mansur’s Anatomy shows.

While understanding the skeleton is a key part of an education in anatomy, even anatomists producing images of the skeleton for educational purposes often can’t resist imbuing the skeleton with personality: this leaning skeleton by Flemish anatomist Andreas Vesalius seems almost wistful; and William Cheselden’s skeleton in the act of prayer imparts a deep religious sensibility to the rendering of the flexed forearms. Even stripped of our flesh, it seems, we are not free of all the hopes and fears of life.

The struggle continues

Keith Haring, Stop AIDS. Wellcome Images / Wellcome Library

Keith Haring, Stop AIDS. Wellcome Images / Wellcome Library

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.