Rewind: Richard Perram remembers IMAGING AIDS (1989)

Richard Perram at Loti Smorgon Gallery Opening, 1987. Courtesy ACCA Archive
In 1989 Imaging AIDS at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art became the first art exhibition and publication in Australia, if not the world, to look at the most serious health issue of the 20th/21st century, the spectre of HIV/AIDS (Human immunodeficiency virus infection / acquired immunodeficiency syndrome).¹

HIV/AIDS is a disease of the human immune system that was first clinically observed in 1981. But it was not until 1983 that Robert Gallo (US) and Luc Montagnier (France) separately identified a retrovirus that later came to be called HIV.

The history of HIV/AIDS in Australia in comparison with the rest of the world is distinctive in that prevention strategies were developed by government in close cooperation with grass roots groups that were principally gay. As a result Australia recognised and responded to the AIDS pandemic relatively swiftly, developing in 1987 one of the most successful disease prevention and public health education programs in the world. As a result, despite the disease gaining an early hold in at-risk groups principally gay men and IV users, Australia achieved and has maintained a low rate of HIV infection.

In 1987/88 when Imaging AIDS was being developed there was considerable public debate about the issue of AIDS, most of it negative. As Director of ACCA (1986-1989) I strongly believed that it was important for the gallery to develop exhibitions that looked at how the visual arts could engage with important social issues and AIDS was one such issue.

Stewart MacFarlane, The Forest, 1987. Featured in Imaging AIDS, ACCA 1989. Courtesy the artist and ACCA Archive

Imaging AIDS consisted of an exhibition at two galleries, ACCA in South Yarra (18 January – 5 February) and Linden in St Kilda (28 January – 26 February) and a publication. The project was overseen by a curatorium whose members were Graeme Byrne, Terry Harding, Stephanie Holt, Robert Jacks, Chris McAuliffe, Richard Perram and Stieg Persson. Sponsorship was provided by The Health Promotion Unit of the Victorian Health Department, St Kilda City Council, The Howard Norman Trust, Chris Perks, Greg McIntyre, the Victorian AIDS Council and 70 Arden Street.

The project was seen by the curatorium as a way for the visual arts community to support and engage in an unprejudiced and compassionate discussion of this most serious threat to public health.

Inclusion in the exhibition operated in a very democratic way with letters of invitation sent out to many artists inviting them to submit work around the theme of HIV/AIDS and asking them to pass the invitation around to other interested artists. No artists who submitted work were excluded from the exhibition with the result that both established as well as community artists were included.  

Initially the Board of ACCA was very reluctant for the exhibition to go ahead, due perhaps to their perception of the controversial nature of the exhibition and its subject matter. However they eventually agreed that the exhibition and the publication could proceed.

Similarly debate about the exhibition waged in the visual arts community between those artists who were willing to participate and those that weren’t.

To some, it seemed that the artistic program of the gallery was under threat and that Imaging AIDS was only the tip of the iceberg. This debate about the artistic program would again resurface in 1988 when I scheduled the ACCA exhibition Moral Censorship and the Visual Arts in Australia (1989) curated by Alison Carroll, the last exhibition under my directorship.

¹ The National Gallery of Australia’s exhibition Don’t Leave Me This Way: Art in the Age of AIDS curated by Ted Gott would not occur until 1994.

The exhibition Imaging AIDS was held at ACCA from 27 January – 26 February 1989.

Excerpt of conversation with Richard Perram

Richard Perram was Director of ACCA from 1986-1989. He has been Director of the Bathurst Regional Art Gallery since 2004 and has held many other roles in the arts, including Executive Officer of Arts Queensland, Executive Officer of Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras, Program Officer at the Visual Art Board of the Australia Council and as the Special Events Coordinator for South Sydney Council. He has been a member of many arts boards including Res Artis, the Visual Arts Reference Group for Museums & Galleries NSW and the Arts NSW Youth Panel. In 2014 he was awarded an OAM for services to the visual arts particularly the museums and gallery sector. 


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