Art is often a rallying cry, an effective tool for pointing out social absurdities and spurring action on important national issues. Two current exhibitions in Miami embrace the art of activism, addressing both the AIDS crisis and globalization.
• The Wolfsonian-FIU is known for the breadth of its propaganda collection, which includes a 1944 Ben Shahn poster celebrating the glories of America and circular 1933 Renato Bertelli bust of Benito Mussolini. The museum is adept at examining the art of activism, of all kinds, and makes a fitting site for Graphic Intervention: 25 Years of International AIDS Awareness Posters 1985-2010.
The show, which originated at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, features work from Bostons International Poster Gallery, run by highly regarded poster collector and dealer James Lapides. It includes 153 AIDS awareness posters from 44 countries. The Wolfsonian is also celebrating collector Henry S. Hackers gift of more than 3,600 AIDS awareness posters; Hacker, a new Wolfsonian Advisory Board member, is a Boston-based collector and AIDS activist.
Graphic Intervention opens on a note of elegance from Hackers donation with a poster from 1995 created by the Austrian advertising firm Palla Koblinger & Partner. Two hands with fingers cupped together form a ribbon shape, the accompanying text on the poster laying the dilemma of AIDS out, Mankind is kind. Humanity is infectious
Posters have been instrumental in the fight against AIDS since the disease first emerged. In the late 1980s, Gran Fury, an artist collective that created graphic designs for ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), produced revolutionary images of couples of different races and sexual orientation, paired with the message, Kissing Doesnt Kill, Greed and Indifference Do.
Those posters still pack a lot of graphic firepower, as does much of Graphic Intervention. The work varies widely in style, from Condoman a 1994 poster by the firm Australian Redback Graphix featuring a superhero character encouraging condom use with the slogan Dont be shame be game. Protect Yourself! to a forever unsettling United Colors of Benetton ad from 1992 depicting a person with AIDS surrounded by his family. (That poster, created by the late graphic designer Tibor Kalman and Italian photographer Oliviero Toscani, features a photo called The death of David Kirby showing Kirby as he died of AIDS at the Ohio State University Hospital in 1990; the image originally ran in Life Magazine as part of a photographic essay.)
The Wolfsonian has augmented Graphic Intervention with pieces from its own collection, using work from public health campaigns fighting the spread of sexually transmitted diseases such as gonorrhea. In one small exhibition rom are posters, such as the 1942 Arthur Szyk placard with stymied cartoonish Nazis and the slogan Fool the Axis Use Prophylaxis. A display of 1930s condoms includes a gentle rendering of a bare-chested mermaid laying on rocks a fitting logo for the Mermaid brand at a time when condoms were marketed with discreet references to pleasure.
Another small installation room is devoted to the horrors of the modern era. The room is lined with neat rows of red ribbons, symbolizing the 597,000 U.S. deaths of AIDS; visitors are encouraged to write the names of departed loved ones on the ribbons.