An exhibit at the Memorial Art Gallery that uses the imagery of posters to trace issues involving HIV/AIDS opened on Sunday.
There are about 165 posters in this exhibit, but that’s only a fraction of the more than 8,000 posters having to do with HIV/AIDS collected by physician and medical historian Dr. Edward Atwater, who died in 2019 at the age of 93.
Atwater donated his extensive collection to the University of Rochester, and sorting through which ones to put in the exhibit was one of the challenges that guest curator Donald Albrecht had as he organized Up Against the Wall: Art, Activism and the AIDS Poster.
On Sunday, Atwater said that one of the starting points was focusing on posters that just tried to build awareness of HIV/AID, in the early 1980s.
“The desire to simply create posters that got the word AIDS in the public realm was very significant, because people didn’t even want to use the word,” said Albrecht. “So, some of the posters simply use the word AIDS to get it out there into the public conversation.”
Albrecht said other parts of the exhibit show the shift from just trying to help sort through the misinformation about HIV/AIDS, to posters that also tried to persuade people to change their attitudes and their behaviors.
“We were curating the show while COVID was happening. And there was a lot of discussion of misinformation,” Albrecht said. “And I discovered in the early days of AIDS, there was a lot of misinformation, unlike other diseases, where people know how it happened, people didn’t know how you got AIDS.”
Among those attending the exhibit’s opening on Sunday, John Carnegie of Rochester, who said that he saw a parallel with early efforts to provide information about HIV/AIDS, and more recent efforts to correct fallacies about COVID-19.
“There’s a lot of misinformation with COVID, and even the exhibit here mentions that posters nowadays are integral to helping spread the word on that,” said Carnegie. “But absolutely I think anyone can come down to this exhibit here and really leave with something different. I feel like everyone can learn something from this exhibit.”
The exhibit at the Memorial Art Gallery runs through June 19.