The history of Aids activism told through five T-shirts, curated by Past and WePresent

A collection of shirts sourced from eBay and LGBTQIA+ archives, shows how resourcefulness was key to revolt during the Aids crisis.

Date
22 November 2023

For better or worse, social media has entirely transformed how we protest. At the height of the Aids crisis, not only was this tool unavailable, mainstream outlets were not publishing crucial educational material either. It was left to queer activists to fight for visibility and advocacy using what was readily available – posters, placards, marches and the shirts on their backs.

WePresent, WeTransfer’s digital arts platform, and 2023 guest curator Russell Tovey have joined together to call attention to this history in an arts project about the Aids crisis. We Move in Circles is the exhibition. It comprises an archive of T-shirts (curated by archival production studio Past from eBay, the Internationaal Homo/Lesbisch Informatiecentrumen Archief and the University of Northern Texas Special Collections) and a documentary about David Robilliard, an artist and poet who died from an Aids-related illness in 1988.

“Today when we think about the Aids crisis we’re able to look at it through the prism of history and the context that that provides, but it’s important to remember that in the 80s, when it was happening, it was completely demonised, as were those that it affected,” says Holly Fraser, editor-in-chief of WePresent. “And when the mainstream wasn’t demonising it, they were largely ignoring it. This meant that the queer community and their allies had to fight to be seen, heard and advocated for, and, crucially, this fight also had to be visible.”

While the T-shirts have been collated for We Move in Circles, Past and WePresent points out that they were designed to be worn in the fight “for more research, better healthcare, access to medication, policy change, and support for people with HIV/Aids”, as Past’s Rosanna Hyland puts it. Their designs comprise bootleg iterations of popular media, like The Simpsons and slogans that came to represent entire collectives, like Act Up.

Readers can explore a selection of the T-shirts gathered for We Move in Circles below. The exhibition runs from 23 November and the documentary will be released for free on WePresent the same day.

“We hope that this exhibition reminds people of the power of art,” says Holly. “The power to connect, to humanise and to shape or change perception. While the stories that we’re exploring are from the 80s and 90s we also want to ensure that people realise that the fight for equality is far from over; we see that in politics and rhetoric all over the world today and increasingly more so in our current government, which is why Russell named the exhibition We Move in Circles.”

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Copyright © Past / WePresent by WeTransfer, 2023

Silence = Death

The “silence = death” slogan began life as a poster in New York marches, WePresent explains. It’s had a long history since. In the 80s, a collective started by Avram Finkelstein adopted the slogan to rally against the widespread position of silence most had adopted towards the Aids crisis. “The pink triangle was chosen for its reputation as a recognisable and inclusive gay symbol. The triangle was updated with vivid fuchsia and turned upside down. In fact, the reversal was an accident that was later imbued with meaning: inverting a symbol of victimhood to reclaim power,” says WePresent.

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Copyright © Past / WePresent by WeTransfer, 2023

Act Up Bart

In the 1990s, bootleg Bart Simpson merch was common, with independent artists often adopting the “eat my shorts” slogan for various political causes. This T-shirt first showed up at the sixth International Aids Conference in 1990, brought along by an entrepreneur. “[It] imagines a world where Bart is a heroic Act Up member, wearing a ‘silence = death’ T-shirt and sporting an earring.”

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Copyright © Past / WePresent by WeTransfer, 2023

Stop Aids

This is an original piece from Keith Haring’s novelty outlet Pop Shop, which opened in the 80s in an effort to reach more people with art. Amidst a landscape of violence and apathy, the T-shirt shows the collective strength it would take to fight the Aids crisis.

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Copyright © Past / WePresent by WeTransfer, 2023

Read My Lips

Created by Gran Fury, the slogan “read my lips” referenced a Bush election campaign catchphrase and his failure to fight Aids and HIV. It also “spoke to the confrontational nature of expressing queer sexuality in public. Mainstream America was already squeamish about queer imagery, let alone with the added context of Aids.”

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Copyright © Past / WePresent by WeTransfer, 2023

National March on Washington for Lesbian and Gay Rights

This T-shirt acted almost as advertising, says WePresent. In the lead up to the first national march for lesbian and gay rights in 1979, it became a wearable signpost to show your attendance, as well as being worn in pride at the march itself.

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Copyright © Past / WePresent by WeTransfer, 2023

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About the Author

Liz Gorny

Liz (she/they) joined It’s Nice That as news writer in December 2021. After graduating from the University of Bristol, they worked freelance, writing for independent publications such as Little White Lies, Indie magazine and design studio Evermade.

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