At the beginning of the 1980s, HIV was publicly identified and considered to blame for tens of thousands of deaths worldwide. AIDS was commonly associated with male homosexuality and the consumption of hard drugs, its stigmatisation contributing to misinformation and the rapid spread of the virus. Opposite governments’ unwillingness to recognise the pandemic and search for treatments for the disease, different collectives surfaced and argued for non-discriminatory policies and care for people who were HIV positive. Many artists, some of them contracting the disease, became involved in these protest actions.
HIV has marked a whole generation, yet AIDS, which even today affects millions and causes thousands of deaths each year, was ultimately associated with marginalisation. The AIDS pandemic traced new limits of identity, both geopolitical and subjective, and the origin of human infection in Africa through chimpanzees and the spread of the virus further augmented prejudice related to the disease, known as “the gay plague”, as well as the moralist association between pleasure and death.
In his Manifiesto. Hablo por mi diferencia (Manifesto. I Speak from My Difference, 1986), Chilean writer and artist Pedro Lemebel faced the homophobic attitude of the Left and stressed the importance of desire in politics. First read in 1986, at a Communist Party act, his text mentions Cuban sidarios (AIDS centres), places of internment reserved for homosexuals. In 1987, Lemebel founded, with Francisco Casas, the collective Las Yeguas del Apocalipsis (Mares of the Apocalypse), with their bodies present in joint actions serving as a platform to speak about identity and sexuality and to criticise predominant conservative positions in Chile. In Las dos Fridas (The Two Fridas, 1989), an action drawing inspiration from the homonymous painting by Frida Kahlo, they drew hearts and blood transfusion tubing on their naked torsos and used transvestism as a strategy to question sexual identities imposed by the official machinery of the established regime.
José Leonilson, Feliciano Centurión and Pepe Espaliú also speak, in first person, of love, desire and pain. Their intimist works depict the disease passing through their bodies and offer a counter-narrative to the reading of HIV in the media. In 1993, three years after being diagnosed at just 36, Leonilson died of AIDS. The promise of Geração 80 (Generation ‘80s) in Brazilian art, his HIV infection shaped a practice that became increasingly autobiographical, with delicate fabrics written and sewn as diaries, laced with melancholy and acerbity. “Tenderness is dust”, he wrote with a needle and thread in O dia do herói (Hero Day, 1990), the work that lends this room its name. The tactile appearance and presence of an absent or weakened body is also conspicuous in the drawings and sculptures of Spanish artist Pepe Espaliú, and in the coloured blankets of Feliciano Centurión. These blankets, works in which the affective is political, apply handicraft knowledge, acquired in a childhood shaped by female figures, to daily objects and contain references to his native Paraguay.