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Megan Maurice
UNSW News & Content

The Australian response in the initial years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic is recognised as one of the most successful in the world due to the unique collaboration between governments, the medical profession and the affected communities. The campaigns and artworks produced during this time employed a characteristic wit, humour and sarcasm that reflect a resilience in the face of tragedy and grief.

It is this element that is captured in Strong and Powerful: Remembering the Age of AIDS – an exhibition that launched this week at UNSW Library.

The exhibition presents posters, artworks and ephemera drawn from personal collections that capture the community-led response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic during the 1980s and 90s in Australia.

These personal and collective voices continue to shape the Australian understanding of HIV/AIDS and together reveal the enduring impact and memory of this public response within the affected communities.

Jackson Mann, Curator of Special Collections and Exhibitions at UNSW Library believes it’s important to remember this period of history through the lens of the communities that were affected.

“There have been exhibitions on this topic and using some of this material in the past, amazing shows at all levels from national institution-level down to very community-oriented spaces,” he said.

“And so the rationale behind this show is a bit different to those because we're not drawing from institutional collections, everything has come from private collections.

“There's a real domestic context to some of the posters that are on display because they're still part of the lives of those individuals, they're still part of an ongoing, living memory for what this time meant.”

The name for the exhibition comes from a speech made by David McDiarmid at the launch of his ACON Safe Sex and Safe Injecting campaign posters at the Museum of Contemporary Art in 1992.

“When I’ve shown these posters to friends in the past month, the recurring words I’ve heard are ‘strong’ and ‘powerful’” he said.

“Strong and powerful are words I would use about my best friend who has given up his job to nurse his ex-lover in Nimbin, while organising a support network for another sick friend in Sydney.

“Strong and powerful is a friend who has nursed two lovers through their final days and weeks and months. Strong and powerful because they have kept their sanity and humour, not easy for sick queens in 1992.

Strong and Powerful Exhibition

An installation view of Strong and Powerful: Remembering the Age of AIDS at UNSW Library, Main Library Level 5.

Mann believes the UNSW Library exhibition space is uniquely placed to hold this exhibition due to the audience they attract.

“Unlike other exhibiting institutions or galleries, we can guarantee that we will have audiences come across this exhibition who weren't expecting to and that's our student population,” he said.

“We have 55,000 students and the Main Library is visited more than two million times a year. And we know that of the audiences that attend our exhibitions, 60% of those are students.”

University Librarian Martin Borchert also believes this is an important and relevant exhibition for UNSW to be holding given the University’s important role in public health research in Australia.

Hero Macdonald, Director of Learning Services and Digital Innovation agrees, stressing the importance of ensuring research and innovation are accessible to the student body.

“The Library's Exhibitions Program is really meant to be this kind of cross faculty, inter-disciplinary space to support discourse on campus in a way that other spaces can't necessarily do,” she said.

“We’re really trying to engage with researchers and students to showcase a whole range of interesting creative research outputs and cultural collections.”

Strong and Powerful Exhibition Opening

Exhibition attendees listen to Associate Professor Leong Chan's opening address.

UNSW’s Health Promotion team will also hold an event during the exhibition to commemorate World AIDS Day. After receiving a Red Ribbon Grant from the HIV and Related Program Unit (HARP SESLHD), the team put together a positive speaker event called Speaking from Experience, in partnership with UNSW Library and Positive Life NSW.

“The idea is that people can come along and hear a student talk about their experience of being diagnosed with HIV,” said Health Promotion Coordinator Dr Zoe Richards.

“It's no longer a death sentence. People who are HIV-positive live full lives and also go to university.”

The event is open to all staff and students, but particularly targets staff in student-facing roles to provide some education and context around the experience of students living with HIV.

“It’s important that if there are students who go to UNSW that are HIV-positive, that people who are in student facing roles are able to support them,” Dr Richards said.

As for the exhibition itself, Mann believes those who visit may be surprised at what they find.

“Many of the posters that are included in this exhibition, which were produced and circulated in the 1980s and 1990s would be controversial if they were produced today,” he said.

“A lot of the earlier posters included in the exhibition were designed to be encountered only be those within the most at-risk communities and weren’t widely circulated at all. It’s easy to forget that, with the visibility that HIV/AIDS campaigns have today, and visitors might be surprised by how direct the messaging is.

Strong and Powerful: Remembering the Age of AIDS will run from 27 November - 13 December 2019 at UNSW Main Library, Level 5.

Speaking From Experience will be held on Tuesday 3 December 2019 from 10:30 am – 12:00 pm at UNSW Main Library Level 5. Places are limited and RSVPs are essential.