Artist & Curator Paul Sammut Brings Us Up to Speed About HIV/AIDS in Comics
by Chael Needle
How have artists and activists used comics to create and shape conversations about HIV and AIDS? That’s the question London-based artist Paul Sammut answered in an exhibit that he curated for Visual AIDS.
“Comic Velocity: HIV and AIDS in Comics” showcased a selection of items from the UK HIV/AIDS Graphic Communication Archive, and comics/sequential art by Alison Bechdel; Howard Cruse; Jennifer Camper; Kate Charlesworth; Chris Companik; Jon Eikenberg; Gilbert Hernandez; Bruce Rapp; James Romberger, Marguerite Van Cook, and David Wojnarowicz; Carlos Sánchez Becerra; David Shenton; Michael Slocum and many others.
The art ranged from the informative (safer sex pamphlets) to the expressive (Jon Eikenberg’s The Endearing End of Emmett) and it mixed established forms (Marvel Comics) with emerging ones (zines). Notes Sammut, who recently earned a Sequential Design MA at the University of Brighton, where his reseach focused on suburban LGBTQ+ histories: “The exhibition title, ‘Comic Velocity,’ borrows the term ‘velocity’ from academic Ramzi Fawaz, who has used it to describe variations in emotional intensity conveyed through comics. These emotions can be communicated through the form of a comic, from the ordered formula of a newspaper gag strip to expansive super-heroic double page spreads, and to varying ends; educational strips tend towards order and regularity, but sometimes use humor and melodrama to entertain and engage, while biographical stories depend on personal experience, from the light and anecdotal (e.g., Zander Alexander, PWA by Michael Slocum) to the intense and angry (e.g., graphic memoir 7 Miles a Second by David Wojnarovicz, James Romberger and Marguerite Van Cook).” And, alongside this emotional gear-shifting, the exhibit’s introductory text reminds that the medium is characterized by “democracy, accessibility and immediacy,” much-needed attributes when communicating about HIV/AIDS.
The exhibit at PS122 Gallery in Manhattan ran from June 11–July 11, 2021.
Visual AIDS has now published Comic Velocity: HIV and AIDS in Comics, an illustrated publication that examines and celebrates a diversity of responses to the pandemic. Notes Sammut: “The publication is not an exhibition catalogue, but is intended to stand alone. It includes some works that aren’t in the exhibition alongside some texts—an essay by comics creator Leonard Rifas about AIDS educational comics from 1991, and new texts by comics scholar Margaret Galvan, interdisciplinary artist Alexandro Segade, and an overview by myself, so hopefully it will exist as a reference point in itself.”
This is not the first time Sammut has done curatorial and arts-publishing work. Sammut has worked with curator Alexandra Terry under the name P.A.S.T. Projects and run the project space White Cubicle (2012–2017). Currently, he is a member of the queer publishing platform Strange Perfume and his own work has been published under the imprint Valletta House.
A&U recently had a chance to correspond with the artist and curator.
Chael Needle: What was the impetus for the exhibit?
Paul Sammut: There were quite a few reasons why I wanted to organize the exhibition. I’ve loved the work that Visual AIDS are doing for quite a while now and they have an annual open call for curatorial proposals. When I saw it come up again I was finishing my MA and thought, well, this makes sense: a show about comics and HIV/AIDS. I want to be useful in my art projects and thought that showing comics in a context of a contemporary art organization would open up new audiences to Visual AIDS, and to the amazing work that cartoonists and comic artists have been doing for years.
I really believe in looking back to find new ways forward and, as a queer person, as a sick person and as an introvert, I can see how the world still doesn’t work for many of us, so I love spending time researching in archives finding out about how people have lived before. Those marginal voices have existed and we can learn from them to find better, more inclusive ways of living now and in the future. This is all to say that I’m a massive nerd and I’d already been collecting and researching historical queer comics, and looking at queer histories, of which HIV/AIDS is a huge part, and this exhibition seemed to be a good opportunity to continue learning while doing something useful.
I thought that looking at comics that engage with AIDS would highlight some amazing work by artists that I love, outside of the circles that have already been exploring it (mainly academia and specifically the queer comics community) and demonstrate what comics can do, exploring this serious subject matter in so many ways, with multiple viewpoints. Those multiple viewpoints are important to present a project that doesn’t speak for, but of, other people and their experiences.
In what ways did you see those multiple viewpoints converging and diverging in the comics?
The exhibition was organized to present multiple viewpoints with the aim of allowing each artist to speak for themselves through their work. So, for example, the show was not structured chronologically, and while there are some groupings, works are placed next to very different projects to highlight similarities and differences.
An example of this would be two adjoining vitrines that include comics published by and for people with HIV and AIDS in Newsline and A&U. In one vitrine we have a selection of issues of Newsline displaying comics by Michael Slocum who establishes a lightness in his strips with loose, floating panels. The connecting vitrine includes issues of A&U with comics by Chris Companik and Jon Eikenberg; Companik’s comics, HIV + Me, utilize defined panels and bright superhero-style colors whereas Eikenberg’s strip The Endearing End of Emmett is confined to one short block or panel of detailed black and white drawing. Even at first glance it’s clear that these three people living with AIDS are using the same medium but expressing things in quite different ways.
What did you learn in the process of curating this exhibit?
I’ve learned so much while working on this project, not least about a number of amazing comics artists. We had to adapt the project (which was supposed to open last year) because of COVID, which meant thinking of new ways to get the work out there. I’m not so Internet-focused and prefer working with physical publications, but we built a web platform for the new commissions with the help of Hugh Frost, who runs the publisher Landfill Editions in the U.K. and had received funding to create an online publication of comics a few years ago. We also decided to produce some podcasts in lieu of physical events to promote the new works. I’ve mostly worked in quite a DIY way in the past, but it was brilliant working alongside the people at Visual AIDS. It’s genuinely been a real privilege to work with so many people on this project, many of whom were already heroes of mine, and their generosity has been really amazing, in terms of sharing stories and putting me in touch with other people. I’ve also, obviously, learned more about HIV and AIDS, too, through the work and also through the people we’ve worked with.
The new work you commissioned as part of Strip AIDS 2020 (and made available as free take-aways for “Comic Velocity”) is so engaging. J. Amaro and A. Andrews (Just a Pill?), Inés Ixierda & Clio Sady (Legalize Positivity), Carlo Quispe (Paco), and Mel Rattue (Strutting to Stop Stigma) really show what comics can do to highlight the issues that affect people living with and at risk for acquiring HIV, like HIV criminalization and what is means to “live well” with HIV, among others. Why did you decide to commission four new projects?
Commissioning new projects was really important for me from the outset. Part of Visual AIDS’ mission is to address the fact that the AIDS pandemic is ongoing and I felt that this should be incorporated into the project. I knew there was all this great historical material, and so that needed to be balanced by foregrounding some new work exploring current issues related to AIDS. Working with the artists on their projects was really interesting, some hadn’t made comics before, but I think they all produced useful and worthwhile new works, which, thanks in part to funding from The New York Community Trust DIFFA Fund, we were able to share online and print in small format versions to be distributed for free, mimicking the distribution of projects like the GMHC Safer Sex Comix of the 1980s.
Special thanks to Kyle Croft, Programs Director, Visual AIDS, for all of his help.
For more information about Paul Sammut, visit: https://paulsammut.co.uk.
Chael Needle writes the Art & Understanding column, a look back at thirty years of A&U magazine. Follow him on Twitter @ChaelNeedle.