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First Nations Queer Campaign and Activist Poster Art – A Reclamation Steven Lindsay Ross

18 Mar 2022

As we bump-in the 2022 Mardi Gras exhibition, Deadly/Solid/Staunch, on a hot summer’s day in early February we don’t have many of the pieces yet. What we do have creates the skeleton of the exhibition including beautiful textile pieces by Boomalli senior artist Uncle Jeffrey Samuels and a handful of other pieces by emerging artists such as Nola Taylor.

The Boomalli Aboriginal Arts Co-op gallery space is cavernous when it’s empty and like a cave, sound reverberates, bouncing off the shiny hard expansive concrete floor.

As we bump-in the 2022 Mardi Gras exhibition, Deadly/Solid/Staunch, on a hot summer’s day in early February we don’t have many of the pieces yet. What we do have creates the skeleton of the exhibition including beautiful textile pieces by Boomalli senior artist Uncle Jeffrey Samuels and a handful of other pieces by emerging artists such as Nola Taylor.

We are waiting on a cache images of First Nations queer leaders and photos of community from personal collections. Many of the images are of people who have passed either directly from HIV/AIDS or were members of community who lived through those times and were impacted by the pandemic. We are most anxious to see stash of activist and AIDS campaign posters sent to us by the Australian Queer Archives.

In the cacophony of hammering, moving furniture and ladders we yarn, laugh and discuss where to place the different works, the posters finally arrive, delivered by a handsome man who is also installing for them for us with a mop and a bucket of starchy glue.

We place the posters carefully on the floor to make sense aesthetically and to echo the content on the walls as the handsome man unceremoniously smothers them in the starchy gloop, sealing them in. Instantly they pop to life. It becomes immediately apparent that the electronic versions of the posters do not do these pieces justice. The works are extraordinary and powerful.

Credit: Australian Queer Archives

As the posters lay there, covered in the slippery slime, they instantly draw the eye and as people move through the space they stop to read the posters, some reminisce about the 80s and 90s and of friends and family who have passed or wonder at the sheer audacity of the cut-through messaging. Most stop to admire the artwork embedded within.

Many of the posters such as Condoman are well known, while some haven’t been seen for decades. One of the stand-out posters is part of series by Boomalli artist, Dr Bronwyn Bancroft. The series commissioned in 1992 by the former Dept of Community and Family Services mark a stark contrast between the dark messaging at the time, which relied on fear of contracting and dying from HIV/AIDS. For Bronwyn who had close friends dying from AIDS, the advertising at the time, which included the infamous and supposedly effective grim reaper campaign, was scaring people and for black queer community who were already maligned, made them more fearful and threatened.

Credit: Australian Queer Archives

Bronwyn says “I wanted to bring beauty through art to the messaging, to make people stop and read through the colours. I wanted to do something completely different and allow people to gravitate to the message rather than create more fear”.

She adds that the poster series ran for a long time and “I often ran into people who told me they collected the posters, took them home and framed them”.

Another piece was commissioned by the Redfern Aboriginal Medical Service shows the use of our dark humour. Emblazoned in our flag’s colours, red, black and yellow, it is a twist on valentine’s day card, announcing in a red heart “Your Next Lover Could be that Very Special Person…The One That Gives You AIDS”.

Credit: Australian Queer Archives

These two posters illustrate the many different ways artists approach their work and how they connected directly to community through campaigning, in a way that might not happen much anymore. These days most organisations engage graphic designers and the resultant messages are sanitised or slick, tested through focus groups and are frankly less interesting.

These posters also talked to us in a way that we talk amongst ourselves in community, without being filtered or mediated by white people or white institutions. They were also produced at the time when black queer community was largely left out of mainstream queer culture let alone mainstream hetero culture, a situation which has shifted but still needs ways more work for us to claim our rightful place in black and white society.

Credit: Australian Queer Archives

What we know through the process of pulling Deadly/Solid/Staunch together is that not much is recorded and shared about the power, resilience and strength of the black queer community as expressed by these activist posters and campaigns. Apart from the Australian Queer Archives it became clear is that queer white institutions or even the black organisations didn’t keep this material for future generations. It is a potentially rich and rewarding research project for a queer black researcher looking to explore black queer activism and the connection between art and advocacy.

Credit: Bronwyn Bancroft

Tantalisingly, I heard from more than a few people say that there is a lot of hidden material in people’s private collections. I hope it sees the light of day in another exhibition, particularly with World Pride coming to Australia in 2023.

We know now more than ever the urgency in elevating black voices and for self-determination. The movement that spawned these posters represent an amplification of black queer voices that resonated through time and influenced many black artists, activists and community. And significantly, they saved lives.

Credit: Australian Queer Archives

On the last steamy day of bump-in we continue hanging, moving, arranging and I notice something; no one is stepping on the posters, such is the memories they evoke and the respect they inspire. They have at least reclaimed their rightful place in this space at Boomalli.

Credit: Australian Queer Archives

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