Exhibition investigates Australia’s response to the AIDS epidemic

July 14 / 140

CAPTION: Juan Davila, LOVE (oil on canvas, 1988). © Juan Davila, Courtesy Kalli Rolfe Contemporary Art.
CAPTION: Juan Davila, LOVE (oil on canvas, 1988). © Juan Davila, Courtesy Kalli Rolfe Contemporary Art.

An exhibition of artworks, manuscripts, and other material from private collections and public archives at the George Paton Gallery explores the history of AIDS in Melbourne.

The exhibition TRANSMISSIONS: Archiving HIV/AIDS – Melbourne 1979-2014, coincides with the 20th International AIDS Conference held in Melbourne this month.  

The exhibition examines the relationship between government, policymakers, health professionals and Melbourne’s gay community, and the links between activism, art and design.

In doing so it articulates how design helped to brand political activism throughout the epidemic. 

TRANSMISSIONS also highlights the role of design in the success and failure of the health promotion campaigns that emerged from these partnerships.

While Australia’s early intervention approach in the 1980s is recognised as one the world’s most successful HIV/AIDS prevention campaigns, the exhibition coincides with a 20-year high in infection rates.

Young Australians today may see HIV/AIDS as a part of history more than a present threat. 

While the perception is that HIV/AIDS is now a chronic but manageable disease, it remains a lifelong illness, and potentially fatal. 

To reach more recent generations, current health promotion campaigns have become increasingly sophisticated. 

TRANSMISSIONS investigates several of these campaigns in relation to others from the past 30 years.

Michael Graf, co-curator of the exhibition said that in the early years of the outbreak, the cause and mode of transmission was unknown.

“There was no cure and no effective treatment until the end of the 1980s,” he said. 

“The first decade of the disease was the decade of invention. 

“The earliest drugs, when they finally arrived, were pretty toxic and had unpredictable long-term side effects” 

Many of the papers have a strong association with key University of Melbourne staff at the time. Professor David Penington, who headed the AIDS Task Force, was a central figure in the medical response to the epidemic in Australia.

He was named Victorian of the Year in June. 

His extensive papers, held in the Melbourne University Archives, form an important component of the exhibition. 

Papers from the Julian Phillips Collection, which detail the infamous Terry Stokes case, also contribute to an understanding of Melbourne prior to decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1981, immediately prior to the outbreak of AIDS.

TRANSMISSIONS will run until Friday 25 July at the George Paton Gallery. It is open 12:00pm – 6:00pm.

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