AIDS: a 40-year-long pandemic

In July 1981, the New York Times reported on a strange syndrome affecting gay men. 40 years after that article, an exhibition at Frigoriferi Milanesi retraces the history of the HIV pandemic.

Fabrizio Sclavi, Guerra virale, 2018. Fabrizio Sclavi

It’s been 40 years since the first newspaper article about an unknown disease that would later be identified as AIDS, the human immunodeficiency virus infection and acquired immunodeficiency syndrome.

It was first noticed in June 1981, when the CDC in Atlanta recorded suspected cases of pneumonia in five gay men in Los Angeles.

In July 1981, the New York Times reported on a strange syndrome affecting 41 men during the year. 40 years after that article, an exhibition at Frigoriferi Milanesi retraces the history of this pandemic, which has lasted four decades. 

Through archive documents, posters, works of art, and advertising campaigns, the exhibition explores the great revolution in treatment and the development of scientific research which, thanks to the resistance movements of civil society that began in the United States in the early 1980s and then grew in Europe and Italy, has seen its course radically altered.


The exhibition opens with a copy of the Times article and continues with archive material from the Corriere della Sera Foundation and from Milanese associations particularly active in the fight against AIDS, alternating with a gallery of portraits of personalities such as Rock Hudson, Pier Vittorio Tondelli, Freddie Mercury, Magic Johnson, Bruce Richmann, and Gareth Thomas who have contributed, each in their own way, with their image and personal story, to defining a leap towards the breaking down of the stigma that still weighs on the lives of people living with HIV.

The exhibition features a selection of poignant works of art, including portraits of the American artist Larry Stanton made in 1984 shortly before his death, “Last night I took a man” (1989) by David Wojnarowicz, a visual poem with a strong political impact, and “AIDS: You Can’t Catch It Holding Hands” (1987) by Nikki de Saint Phalle.

Larry Stanton, Untitled (Hospital drawings), 1984.

Visual communication is also included with Benetton’s renowned advertising campaigns by the Italian photographer Oliviero Toscani. Particularly touching are the images taken by an anonymous photographer at the Sacco Hospital in Milan, documenting the infectious diseases ward during the darkest years of the pandemic.

A special area is dedicated to the immersive installation of the“ Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt”. The initiative, based on an idea by Cleve Jones, consisted of the creation of flags on which thoughts and drawings were printed to commemorate friends and family members who had died of AIDS. 

NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, La coperta dei Nomi, ASA Milano.

The last rooms of the exhibition focus on the scientific studies Partners 1 and 2, published in 2016 and 2019 respectively, which revealed that the risk of transmission in unprotected sex with HIV-positive people on treatment is zero. An installation with 2660 rubber ducks – as many as the participants in the studies – tells the story of one of the greatest scientific achievements concerning HIV in the last decade. A battle that has lasted 40 years.

Gianmaria Biancuzzi is executive editor of Milano Art Guide.