Imaging AIDS

02 February 2011
When sent the catalogue to an exhibition of posters on AIDS, Professor Lanny Sommese was struck with the importance of such a showcase. In this feature from novum magazine, Lanny shares some of the powerful and informative images from this exhibition with us.
Prof. Lanny Sommese

When sent the catalogue to an exhibition of posters on AIDS, Professor Lanny Sommese was struck by the importance of such a showcase. In this feature from novum magazine, Lanny shares some of the powerful and informative images from this exhibition with us.



Today the postman delivered to me the catalogue for an exhibition of posters in Boston at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design's Stephen D. Paine Gallery. Entitled "Graphic Intervention: 25 Years of International AIDS Awareness Posters 1985–2010", the exhibition is curated by Elizabeth Resnick, Professor and Chair of Graphic Design at MassArt and Javier Cortes, Partner and Creative Director at Korn Design, Boston. Posters included in the exhibition are from the collections of the James Lapides International Poster Gallery and the Massachusetts College of Art and Design.


Design by Idania/David (Cuba)

As I thumbed through the pages filled with 153 posters from 44 big and small countries scattered across the globe, my first thought was that the exhibition was long overdue. Since the preliminary cases of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) were identified in the early 1980's, more than 25 million people worldwide have died from AIDS. One wonders why there have not been a number of substantial exhibitions of posters and other graphic ephemera related to AIDS. I'm aware of only a few. Most notably the "AIDS: Images of survival" exhibition organised by Charles Michael Helmken for the Shoshin Society in 1988, which included AIDS posters created by American and Korean designers, and the "AntiAIDS – Ukraine" poster exhibition in 2007.

An exhibition of AIDS posters makes sense. Why not remove them from their temporary settings on the walls, billboards and street posts of the world and bring them together to study, analyse, scrutinise and compare?

What is crucially different about the Graphic Intervention exhibition is that, unlike other poster exhibitions, stylistic trends and visual swagger take a backseat to efficacy. The goal of the organisers was to "Present a comprehensive overview of the diverse visual strategies employed by government agencies, community activists, grassroots organisations and motivated citizens to educate the local population. From Papua New Guinea to Denmark to Venezuela to Morocco, these posters demonstrate the different approaches used for discussion of a socially complex subject. The messages in Graphic Intervention deftly champion pertinent sociopolitical issues - disease research and eradication, world health, international relations, sexual education, social prejudices and discrimination - in a remarkable way."

Exclusive of style and fashion the posters in this exhibition present powerful messages that needed - and need - to be communicated.


Uganda School Health Kit on AIDS Control


 Design by Redback Graphix (Australia) for NACAIDS Canberra


Design by Choo Suk Byun (South Korea)


ALCA Association de lutte contre le sida (Morocco)


Design by Bronwyn Bancroft, ©Commonwealth of Australia (Australia)


Design by S. Gosh (India)



V.Scherban, Panorama Publishing House (Russia)


Design by Anon (Zimbabwe)



This feature originally appeared in
novum 1/11, and has been republished with permission.


About Lanny Sommese

A graduate of the University of Florida and the University of Illinois, Sommese has been a member of the Penn State faculty since 1970 and is currently a Professor and Head of Graphic Design. Since 1998, has been a member of the Alliance Graphique Internationale and has been a Correspondent for Novum, since 1976.