Lost & Found: Safer Sex Activism

An exhibition at ONE Archives Foundation Gallery revisits the words & images that raise awareness about HIV prevention

Text & Photos by Sean Black

Los Angeles residents and summer visitors are encouraged not to miss the Lost & Found: Safer Sex Activism Exhibition, currently on display and extended through July 1, 2018, at ONE Gallery in West Hollywood. It is presented in part with a grant funding from the Herb Ritts Foundation. Exhibition co-curators David Evans Frantz and Hannah Grossman will be hosting a closing walkthrough on Sunday, July 1, joined by artists Kim Abeles, Ben Cuevas, and members of Clean Needles Now (CNN). The artist-activists will be conversing about safer sex practices and harm reduction activism in Los Angeles. The event will also celebrate the re-release of Kim Abeles’s HIV/AIDS TAROT cards, first produced in 1992, to promote awareness about HIV/AIDS. The newly printed cards feature updated HIV prevention information and will be free for visitors to the ONE Gallery.

Lost & Found: Safer Sex Activism is organized by the ONE Archives Foundation utilizing the unique holdings of ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives at the University of Southern Califronia (USC) Libraries, the largest LGBTQ archive in the world. ONE Archives Foundation is an independent community partner for the ONE Archives at the USC Libraries. Additional generous support for the Lost & Found: Safer Sex Activism is provided by The Calamus Foundation of New York, Inc., and now, the Herb Ritts Foundation whose mission is to advance the art of photography and support HIV/AIDS causes in a manner that reflects the spirit and values exemplified by Herb Ritts during his lifetime.

Kim Abeles, HIV/AIDS Tarot, 1992. Offset printing, 5.75 by 22.75 inches. Photo by Ian Byers-Gamber. Courtesy of the artist

Curated by David Evans Frantz, Curator at the ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives at the USC Libraries, and independent curator Hannah Grossman, the exhibition highlights nearly 100 objects, some well known and some rarely shown.

• Gran Fury’s Kissing Doesn’t Kill: Greed and Indifference Do, one of the most iconic works of the early epidemic

• A selection of posters produced in the 1990s by the Oakland-based group AIDS Project of the East Bay, including a poster featuring poet Essex Hemphill

• Needle exchange kits from Clean Needles Now (CNN), a Los Angeles grassroots organization founded in the 1990s

• A series of explicit posters produced by Color Coded, a collaboration between Gay Men of Color Consortium, Los Angeles (GMOCC) and the Los Angeles Center for Photographic Studies (LACPS).

• GMHC, founded in 1982 and then the largest AIDS services organization, is represented by Safer Sex Shorts (1989–90), an imaginative erotic safer sex video intended to reach at-risk audiences.

While at the height of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s and 1990s widespread public perception linked AIDS to gay men and intravenous drug users, Lost & Found reveals how activists sought to educate varying publics about the pervasive epidemic. The exhibition will provoke viewers: What impact did safer sex activism have in the past and what is its impact today on HIV prevention?

While many believe that HIV/AIDS is no longer a contemporary issue, HIV acquisition continues to be prevalent in 2018, especially within communities of color. Lost & Found seeks to remember safer sex activism of the past, calling attention not only to extraordinary lives and voices that have been lost, but to knowledge and resources that have been found—which can again inspire, inform, educate, and empower the public.

Using direct, playful, witty, and creative tactics, safer sex activists sought to reach diverse audiences, including gay men, women, transgender individuals, and people of color. Rather than stigmatize sexuality, these educational projects often went hand-in-hand with sex positive practices. The exhibition includes posters, comics, brochures, videos, PSAs, and safer sex and clean needle kits, among other archival items. These novel and accessible forms reveal how activists and educators sought to disseminate information across cultural, economic, linguistic, and class divisions. Further, the exhibition seeks to connect historical works to the ongoing AIDS crisis through contemporary artist and activist projects like the Play Smart condom trading card packets produced by the New York-based organization Visual AIDS featuring contemporary artists such as Kia Labejia, L.J. Roberts, and Ben Cuevas.

Art work by Ben Cuevas

Neal Baer, MD [A&U, June 2017], a consultant in presenting Lost & Found, hopes to draw attention to the dire infection rates still prevalent in Los Angeles. Shocking data from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health shows that two out of five African American men who have sex with men (MSM) in L.A. are HIV positive; for Latino MSM, one in five is positive; and one in ten Caucasian MSM is positive. Even today, with significant health advances to prolong life and prevent infection with medication, many HIV positive people are not in treatment, and young people of color are still being infected at high rates. Baer says, “This show puts the microscope on historical documents and contemporary efforts that illuminate an urgency that still exists.”

Date of closing walkthrough: July 1; time: 3–5 p.m.; location: ONE Gallery, West Hollywood, 626 North Robertson Boulevard, West Hollywood, California 90069 (parking on Robertson Boulevard: metered street parking and public parking lots).

For more information, visit: www.ONEArchives.org.

Sean Black is a Senior Editor at A&U.