“Turn Fear into Action”
Founding members of Silence=Death Collective reunite for the thirtieth anniversary of the poster with the same name
Text and photos by Alina Oswald

In 1986, six gay men came together to change the way we look at AIDS activism, and perhaps at activism in general. They are the founding members of Silence=Death Collective—Avram Finkelstein, Brian Howard, Oliver Johnston (d. 1990), Charles Kreloff, Christopher Lione, and Jorge Socarras. In 1987, the Silence=Death poster appeared on the streets of New York and, shortly after that, became synonymous with ACT UP and AIDS activism.

This year, the members of Silence=Death Collective (Oliver Johnston represented by his sister, Sally Johnston) reunited for the thirtieth anniversary of the poster. The reunion was celebrated through a series of events at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, in New York City.

On June 5, 2017, the museum announced the inauguration of QUEERPOWER, an annual façade commission, which debuted with a museum-site installation by the Silence=Death Collective. On June 8, the museum hosted its annual Summer Benefit. A couple of days later, on June 10, the city council honored the collective with a proclamation at the public opening of FOUND, an art show curated by Avram Finkelstein, on display at Leslie-Lohman Museum.

Avram Finkelstein is perhaps the best-known member of the Silence=Death Collective. He needs no introduction. Finkelstein is an artist, activist and ACT UP member. His upcoming book is After Silence—A History of AIDS Through Its Images. Thanks to him, I got to attend last week’s events.

The Summer Benefit offered a sneak peek at FOUND, a show which includes the work of contemporary artists such as LJ Roberts, Frederick Weston, Pamela Sneed, as well as ephemera from Greer Lankton. Commenting on the show, Gonzalo Casals, Director of Leslie-Lohman, says: “Avram’s brilliant curatorial vision for this timely exhibition captures the zeitgeist of our time.”

The event reunited not only members of Silence=Death Collective, but also other AIDS activists and artists, including Ted Kerr, Eric Rhein, Visual AIDS’ Esther McGowan and Nelson Santos, as well as A&U’s Lester Strong.

The reunion was emotional, as was the award ceremony. Each award was different. For example, Avram Finkelstein’s award encouraged him to “Turn Fear Into Action” while Brian Howard’s encouraged to “Use your power. Vote. Boycott.” On Charles Kreloff’s award is inscribed “Turn Grief Into Action.”

In a quote on the importance and symbolism of the Silence=Death poster, Kreloff says, “We again are facing dangerous times that may very well imperil the lives of the entire LGBTQ community. On the thirtieth anniversary of the Silence=Death poster, the collective feels it’s time to speak up again. Resistance comes in many forms and now more than ever we can’t sit back and think that we’re safe. As with the original poster, a call to awareness and action is necessary now. Be Vigilant. Refuse. Resist.”


Alina Oswald is Arts Editor of A&U.