Griot Museum of Black History and Culture founder and director Lois Conley said during the opening reception for the institution’s latest exhibit, “Impact HIV/AIDS,” was rooted in aesthetics.
“Initially to me the posters were just very beautiful,” Conley said. “I didn’t know much about the artist at the time and I didn’t know a whole lot about the campaign in West Africa that these were created for. I just knew that the images were very beautiful – and I was struck by the art.”
She had six posters that she wanted to display. As she began doing research and outreach to frame an exhibit around them, she learned that the artist Damballah Dolphus Smith had more of a connection to the disease than she ever could have imagined. He was living with the disease when he created the posters. He passed away from AIDS in 1992.
“I was like ‘Oh wow, there’s some real meat to this story,’” Conley said. “This was not someone just creating art. This was someone telling their own story through their art. It’s sad when you have to lose people before the full story is told. Who knows what else he would have done? What contributions he might have had and who else might have been impacted by his story?”
One of the most striking of the posters from the collection – which was created for a Red Cross campaign that paired Smith’s art with African proverbs – was an image that was a portrait within a portrait. The subject of the art was holding onto a picture of himself. Written atop of the image was the Ethiopian saying, “He who conceals his disease cannot expect to be cured.”
The poster was a tragic autobiography of sorts. His story became the springboard for expressing the narrative that she would tell visually through the exhibit. Through portraits and accompanying bios of people around the nation – and right here in St. Louis – the exhibit reveals that HIV/AIDS has impacted the region since before it was known to be a disease.
“The story is that black people have a history with HIV/AIDS that dates back 50 years,” Conley said.
An anchoring portion of the exhibit is the story of a St. Louis teen named Robert Rayford. He fell ill suddenly as a teen in 1969 and died shortly thereafter from an inexplicable illness. His cells were kept for research. Nearly 20 years later Dr. Memory Elvin-Lewis revealed to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that it was determined that he passed away from HIV-related illness.
“There are a lot of underlying stories surrounding Robert’s disease – unfortunately we don’t know much about them at all,” Conley said. “Why were his samples saved?”
But the exhibit reaches beyond the casualties of the disease. The multimedia presentation ranges from posters that detail the celebrity driven campaign to build awareness and tear down stigmas to video interviews of Smith and a segment on Rayford. It also shares stories of individuals living with HIV living full lives as advocates and activists.
“What this exhibit does is that it gives me the opportunity to look up the historical ramifications of the illness,” said Conley. “It took me through the journey when there was no treatment. There was a young man who died because he didn’t get treated because they didn’t know what he had– to today. Now there are medications that are available. There’s changing in behavior that we now know that we can do that makes a difference in our lives – but we have to take those steps.”
Community outreach was critical to the exhibit’s development – which took just over a year to complete. According to Conley, the community’s response and contribution speak to the intention of the exhibit.
“We have to stop sweeping things under the rug that are distasteful to us. We have to deal with it head on,” Conley said. “It doesn’t matter what your sexual preference is or what you do in your private life, but you need to know what your status is. Period. It’s what you do about that that makes the difference.
Conley hopes that those who visit the exhibit feel enlightened about the history of HIV/AIDS within the black community, but also feel encouraged and courageous about putting in the work as far as the awareness and prevention efforts that are as much needed today as ever.
“It’s no longer a death sentence – and it’s not something to feel guilty about,” Conley said. “It’s an illness like any other illness. And if you don’t take care of it, you die from it. We need to pay attention to the fact that we are affected in greater proportions that other groups in the population and we need to take action. We don’t have to die from it – but we do have to be conscious.”
Impact HIV/AIDS opened at the Griot Museum of Black History and Culture (2505 St. Louis Avenue) on Wednesday, December 18. For additional information visit https://www.thegriotmuseum.com/ or call (314) 241-7057.