By Hannah Wanamaker
Throughout the pandemic years, queer art has become a lifeline for the queer community. In my opinion, one of the best examples of Canadian queer art is the General idea AIDS Exhibition currently on display at National Gallery of Canada. It takes the dark and deadly history of the HIV epidemic and makes it colorful. It is a breath of life that tells the story of the victims of the scourge of HIV.
General idea consisted of Felix Partz, Jorge Zontal and AA Bronson. These three Canadian artists invoked the change in the world by challenge controversial queer ideals from 1969-1994.
Important themes included throughout the exhibit are corporate greed, discrimination, and androgyny. “The great cold of polystyrene”, “Miss General Idea” and “Pharmaecology” are the three pieces that marked me on these themes. These pieces encompass androgynous themes, which is essential when discussing a multi-faceted issue like HIV.
“The great cold of polystyrene” forces the observer to wonder which lives are worth saving. Three baby seals lying in a frozen landscape raise the question of commercial hunting. They represent both the HIV and animal rights movements that co-existed. Depicted is the destruction of life for corporate greed in a capitalist society. While this piece blinds its viewer with its snow-white poise, one could argue that white represents the purity of humanity. It is the perfect contrast to the rest of the exhibit, as it is untouched by disease and corruption.
General Idea offers many reviews of the pharmaceutical industry. The ‘Pharmaecology’ painting uses Canadian painter Tom Thomson’s ‘Northern River’ painting as a starting point but adds three pills floating above the body of water. These three pills are called anti-HIV pills. It represents infection of livelihoods, whether that means infection of the body, humanity, nature, or even our social systems.
The pharmaceutical industry has made it difficult to obtain medicines globally due to high costs and distribution restrictions. I see them as a capitalist industry that feeds on people’s misfortunes. This is what emerges from this table. Everywhere you looked during the HIV crisis, everything was infected. The one thing that was supposed to offer some comfort and save people also malfunctioned. And so many people had to perish before scientists and government agencies decided to act.
The first cases of HIV were identified in 1981. In 1985, Canada began testing blood for traces of the HIV strain. It wasn’t until six years after the first cases were discovered that an antiretroviral drug was approved by the FDA and global action was taken by the WHO and UN. A decade into the epidemic, many people’s first treatment for HIV has been approved by the FDA. All approved treatments had their shortcomings. The disease peaked in 2002 when it was declared the number one cause of death worldwide. Sterile injection sites, vaccinations, and education on contraception and safe sex practices are the main preventive measures put in place to reduce spread of disease.
But HIV and discrimination against the queer community are still apparent around the world. It was only at the beginning of this year that the ban on blood donation by homosexuals was lifted in Canada. And it’s no secret that the cost of drug treatment remains astronomical, both in North America and globally. It comes down to the question of which lives are worth saving.
One of my favorite parts of the Queer community is that even in the darkest times, they always provide rays of light. There are many coins that illustrate this, but the one that caught my eye was the “Miss General Idea” coin. It was a beauty pageant meant to encompass androgyny. The exhibit includes many photographs of interpretations of androgyny in the 1970s. As a letter featured in the exhibit shows, many found this to be perverted. Cross-dressing and flirting were very frowned upon. But it started to change the way people saw queer people. Androgyny provided a light in the darkness for the community. They were starting to force their non-Queer counterparts out of binary. They had to start thinking beyond the black and white ideals that plagued society. That’s what makes it such an important piece.
The General idea the exhibition is just as important today as it would have been 40 or 50 years ago. With the emergence of new sexual and gender identities, it is crucial to have forums in which people can express themselves, whether through drag, visual arts, music, etc. After going through an extreme period of separation, people now depend on art to bring their communities together.
Although this exhibition is temporary, it can serve as a gateway for new forms of Queer art to become more prominent in Ottawa culture. It’s time to bring some color back into our lives and rekindle the Queer fire. It’s time to stop wondering which lives are worth saving, and instead come together as a community and fight to save everyone.
The General Idea AIDS exhibition is on view at the National Gallery of Canada until November 20, 2022. Tickets can be purchased on line.