A new book offers a glimpse into a collection of more than 8,000 HIV/AIDS education posters and a 2022 exhibition.
Author: Matthew Cook
"Up Against the Wall: Art, Activism, and the AIDS Poster" in a whit block over a black and gray target pattern

It’s a Tuesday morning in 1988. You’re sitting on a bench, looking for the bus you’re waiting on, while Rick Astley is coming through the headphones of your Sony Walkman, promising he’s “never gonna give you up” (or let you down or run around and desert you). You believe him.

While considering if “Astley” pairs well with your first name, you get the feeling someone is staring at you. (Is it Rick?) It’s not Rick. It’s a baby on a poster. The baby, lying belly-down on a plush blanket, is maybe six months old. Her newborn hair is a bit tousled as if she might have been rubbing her head and face in the soft cotton beneath her. Her expression is gripping. Her eyes, simultaneously sad and bewildered, remind you of the look John Bender had when his high school principal demanded to see how tough he is in The Breakfast Club. Then your eyes find the poster’s copy and your heart winces. You’re sure she looks this way because, somehow, she’s aware of what’s happened to her.

In baby blue font, the poster reads: “She has her father’s eyes and her mother’s AIDS.”

Despite being made up, the scenario above is plausible for 1988 because that’s when this poster was actually seen by Americans. The poster, created by the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, is a jarring public service announcement that reminds the viewer of how tragically communicable HIV is. Today, this poster is one of more than 8,000 HIV/AIDS education posters held by the University of Rochester. Housed in the Department of Rare Books, Special Collections, and Preservation (RBSCP), the AIDS Education Posters Collection, a gift from the late Edward Atwater '50, is one of the world’s largest collections of HIV/AIDS posters and visual resources. And soon, parts of it could be sitting on a coffee table near you.

Up Against the Wall: Art, Activism, and the AIDS Poster is currently available for pre-order.  

The product of a partnership between the River Campus Libraries and RIT Press, Up Against the Wall is a reflection of the AIDS Education Posters Collection and the eponymous Memorial Art Gallery (MAG) exhibition, opening in March 2022. The book will also be available for purchase in the store at MAG prior to and during the exhibition's run.

Jessica Lacher-Feldman, exhibitions and special projects manager for RBSCP and curator of record of the AIDS Education Posters Collection, expects the book to inspire readers to learn more about HIV/AIDS and explore the collection at the gallery next year.

“We wanted to create something that will live on long after the exhibition,” Lacher-Feldman says. “We were very fortunate to partner with RIT Press, who regularly works with design- and art-related books. Bringing this book to life with them feels like a win for all of us.”

Bruce Austin, director of RIT Press, agrees, noting it was an “honor to publish this enormously significant book.”

A baby lying belly-down on its blanket, holding itself up

“We believe the book will prompt sober reflection and introspection,” says Austin, “while functioning as a call to action for enhanced scientific research efforts to rid us of this modern plague. The result is a powerful, often emotionally draining volume that is as timely as it is timeless.”

If, after all this, you’re still planning to just wait for the exhibition, here are more reasons to consider buying the book.

Become reacquainted with the “other” pandemic

Technically, according to the World Health Organization, HIV/AIDS is a “global epidemic.” The point is COVID-19 is just the latest and not-so-greatest virus we’re dealing with on an international scale. On June 5, HIV/AIDS marked its 40th year of U.S. citizenship. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention published its first report on the epidemic in 1981, citing a cluster of five cases of Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia among previously healthy gay men in Los Angeles. In Up Against the Wall, Donald Albrecht, an author and a New York City-based curator, helps set the stage for the main content with a detailed reminder of what’s been happening for the last four decades. Later, William Valenti, M.D., the book’s consulting medical editor and a specialist in infectious diseases at the University of Rochester Medical Center, offers his thoughts on “ending AIDS.”

Get perspectives from activists, artists, and experts, like Fauci

That’s right. The Master of Masks, the Voice of Vaccination, Captain COVID, himself, Anthony Fauci, M.D., director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, is in this book. Fauci is one of nearly 30 powerful and diverse voices who offer personal perspectives through extended captions on specific posters. These “deep captions” come from artists, activists, historians, politicians, medical professionals, and others. Trust us when we say Fauci is just the tip of commentary-berg. There is an abundance of fascinating and profound insight in these pages.

‘Own’ the exhibit

Sure, you can wait for the exhibit, which is still almost nine months away. But even after the wait is over, and you’re able to go and soak it all up, you can’t bring it home. Up Against the Wall is your workaround. The book delivers nearly 200 visually arresting posters for you to revisit again and again and to prepare yourself for the in-person experience—which will not be the same. The gallery exhibition will extend beyond posters to include elements such as a selection of ephemera (branded condoms, flyers, pamphlets, etc.) and oral histories connected to the ongoing HIV/AIDS crisis.

Here’s our totally biased recommendation: purchase the book, read it, and plan to attend the exhibition when it opens, March 6, 2022. ∎

If you would like to learn more about the book, the AIDS Education Posters Collection, or the Memorial Art Gallery exhibition in 2022, contact Jessica Lacher-Feldman, exhibitions and special projects manager for RBSCP, at jlf@rochester.edu. Enjoy reading about the University of Rochester Libraries? Subscribe to Tower Talk.