The HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s should have revealed how important it is to implement an accessible and overarching public health policy. Unfortunately, the government’s initial response to HIV/AIDS was inadequate, leading to more death, pain and long lasting suffering than there needed to be had the health crisis been addressed and understood properly.
Elected officials downplayed or downright ignored the problem, some even making it a partisan issue that was part of the ongoing culture wars which discriminated and ostracized already marginalized identities like the LGBTQ community.
It was not until ordinary citizens took charge, that widespread information and understanding about the reality of HIV/AIDS became public knowledge. Artists were at the forefront of activism and educational initiatives which have been responsible for social, cultural and medical progress in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Groups and individuals, such as ACT UP and ART+ Positive –an ACT UP chapter countering homophobia and the censorship of LGBTQ arts and cultural movements by the religious and political right– took matters into their own hands. They use art and performance as a vector for sharing experiences and resources about the virus, while combating misinformation and stigma that has long been associated with it.
Hunter Reynolds was a founding member of ART+ Positive and an artist who devoted his creative career to advocate for LGBTQ rights to accessible healthcare, housing and social justice. His artistic oeuvre includes photography, video, performance and installation. Themes throughout his multidisciplinary practice were based on the personal experiences that he and his LGBTQ peers faced living with HIV/AIDS and dealing with social and cultural alienation due to homophobia.
One of Reynolds’ long-standing series of works is the embodiment of his alter ego, Patina du Prey. As part of du Prey’s elegant and powerful persona, Reynolds designed clothing that made activist-centered fashion statements. An example is Memorial Dress (1993-2007), a black strapless ball gown and hoop skirt with the names of 25,000 people who died from AIDS adorned in gold. The dress, which combines the solemness of funeral attire with the functionality of celebratory and sensual wear, is a symbol for mourning, loss, survival, healing and hope.
After all, hope had fueled Reynolds’ own resilience as a survivor of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. He reflected that, “Anyone going through this sort of thing, you just have to find the strength in yourself to have hope” (Sanchez, 2022). Reynolds’ own struggles and experiences living with the virus enabled him to educate and empower others who faced trials and tribulations.
In 2013, Reynolds co-founded Arts in the Woods, a summer arts camp developed as a means to support and empower homeless or disenfranchised LGBTQ teens and adults aged eighteen through twenty-five. The camp’s curriculum includes art, music, dance, theater and outdoor recreational activities that facilitate profound exploration and expression of themselves as individuals and as members of the queer community.
Reynolds enlisted some of his peers from the contemporary art scene, such as Ross Bleckner (seen in this video talking about art and activism) to provide instructional scaffolding and social and emotional mentorship for the campers.
Testimonial from participants revealed how the week-long program provided much needed respite and reflection:
Scott, a 22 year old camper said “This week helped open me to learning new things and do things outside my comfort zone. I feel like I know myself so much better now and I’m so glad I came.” Ashley, age 19, assessed that “Everything about the week was incredible and I left feeling really confident in myself and my direction in life. The world would be a much better place if every young LGBT person could do this program just once and realize they’re not alone.”
Hunter Reynolds and Patina du Prey left this mortal realm on June 12th, 2022 at the age of 62. His legacy as an advocate and educator for social justice and HIV/AIDS care and compassion looms large as we continue to collectively face adversity both in terms of access to healthcare and with regards to freedom of expression and body autonomy.
May his memory continue to be a movement towards transformative change.
References, Notes, Suggested Reading:
Durón, Maximilíano. “Hunter Reynolds, Pioneering Artist Known for Heart-Wrenching Works That Chronicled the Immense Loss Wrought by HIV/AIDS, Dies at 62,” ARTnews, 15 June 2022. https://www.artnews.com/art-news/news/hunter-reynolds-artist-dead-who-was-1234631981/
Finkel, Jori. “A masterclass in activism: What artists today can learn from ACT UP’s response to the Aids crisis,” The Art Newspaper, 3 June 2021. https://www.theartnewspaper.com/2021/06/03/a-masterclass-in-activism-what-artists-today-can-learn-from-act-ups-response-to-the-aids-crisis
Heller, Steven. “How AIDS Was Branded: Looking Back at ACT UP Design,” The Atlantic, 12 January 2012. https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/01/how-aids-was-branded-looking-back-at-act-up-design/251267/
Sanchez, Charles. “An Artful Life,” POZ, 16 May 2022. https://www.poz.com/article/artful-life