This year marks the 30th anniversary since AIDS first emerged as a health crisis. Around the country, memorials, retrospectives and documentaries have popped up to explore what AIDS is it like now that 30 years have passed. But few of these projects have managed to balance both the national political movement with the collective struggle—and successes—of local organizations. An exhibit at the William Way Community Center titled 1981-Until It’s Over is a notable exception, offering a sense of how the virus changed the political climate nationally in a way that led to the development of AIDS organizations and policies that have defined life in Philadelphia. The result is a must-see exhibit for anyone who is curious enough to examine how an invisible virus could change the lives of so many.
Though the exhibit occupies a small part of William Way, it manages to trace the difficult, often painful, history of the virus in a series of panels that capture old photographs, newspaper clippings and quotes from prominent politicians, artists and activists. For those without knowledge of the early crisis, this is an accessible history that’s key to understanding how AIDS altered life in this country—from 1981, when the virus emerged as a “gay cancer,” to 1987, when Ronald Reagan made his first public address about AIDS.
The exhibit also offers a more probing look at the ways in which Philadelphia became one of the earliest cities to pioneer treatment and support for those with AIDS. Some may be surprised to learn that Philadelphia has long served as a bastion of AIDS activism, especially for those in black and Latino communities that, until very recently, have been ignored by the Centers for Disease Control and other national organizations.
1981-Until It’s Over celebrates the achievements in helping treat the virus in Philadelphia, honoring, in one of the exhibit’s more memorable photographs, arrests of prominent West Philadelphia activists in the mid-’90s and the advent of necessary, free, confidential HIV-testing as early as 1985. But it also forces us into the unsettling, apocalyptic moments of this history that linger in our thoughts, even after we’ve left the gallery. In one of the earlier panels from 1986, large lettering proclaims, “24,559 have died from AIDS,” and later, in lettering that takes up an entire panel, we learn, “30 million are infected with HIV worldwide.” However, rather than focusing on the gaunt, sunken-eyed spectacles of death, we’re given a history lesson on the effect that visibility of early AIDS activism had in defining a violent political response to those with AIDS, including efforts to quarantine and criminalize those who had the virus.
It might be easy to fault the exhibit as piggybacking off other popular AIDS remembrances, but when you see a single line steadily climbing through the panels that traces the number of people infected with AIDS in this country (from 250 in 1981 to 1.2 million today), you know the epidemic is far from over. More importantly, the show makes clear that something fundamental has been lost in the fight against AIDS; 50,000 new infections continue to occur every year, mostly those under 25, the majority of whom are black or Latino.
In turning to leave the exhibit, the glass case filled with activist memorabilia begs a second look. A single button, emblazoned with the now-famous ACT-UP slogan, “SILENCE = DEATH,” stands out. Though it may be uncomfortable for some, 1981-Until It’s Over recognizes that we must fight to ensure that this old slogan—so painfully apt in the early days of AIDS—doesn’t regain its place as a political reality today.
Through Dec. 15. Free. William Way Community Center, 1315 Spruce St. 215.732.2220. waygay.org
Calendar: Aug. 26-Sept. 2