A Pandemic in Print

An exhibit of posters demonstrates the important role media plays during a widespread epidemic.

Western society has a mostly base reaction to the AIDS crisis in Africa–the “we must help” campaigns and the occasional story in the paper–but with 35 million in Africa out the 39.5 million infected worldwide, it is nearly impossible for us to fathom living with a disease of its magnitude. Hoping to shed light on that experience comes “Pandemic in Print: African HIV/AIDS Posters,” an exhibition at Columbia College’s A+D Gallery in Chicago. Organized by seventeen undergraduate students and drawn from a collection housed by the Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies at Northwestern University, the exhibit features more than fifty AIDS awareness posters from all across the African continent.

The exhibit showcased an astounding variety of placards. One poster which focused on AIDS within the workplace stated, “Sharing my HIV Status is a Choice…Not an Obligation”. On the home front, another poster encouraged men to take care of their children should their wives fall ill (“AIDS: Men Make a Difference”). And others tell female teenagers not to succumb to the advances of lecherous male teachers, truckers not to visit prostitutes, and on the opposite end of the gallery, one decries John Kearney, the CEO of Glaxo SmithKline South Africa, as a heartless profiteer (“Deadlier Than the Virus”).

Dr. Kate Ezra, the Coordinator of Art History of the Department of Art and Design at the college; and the professor responsible for overseeing the students’ work on the exhibit explains that specific creators of the posters are largely unknown. “Some are designed by employees of AIDS service providers or local NGOs who have no artistic training. They use whatever tools they have available to get their message across.” In regards to the use of child-like illustrations in many of the posters, Ezra explains, “Literacy is an important factor, and many of the posters use text in local African languages or incorporate drawings that are similar in style to elementary school textbooks–to make their message as clear as possible.”

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But there was another theme to this exhibit—the role and responsibility of graphic designers. For instance, there were two posters designed by the Concerned Citizens for Humanity . Ezra describes this group of citizens and professionals from varied disciplines as “a consortium of Americans who donate their services to international social justice, health-related, and human rights projects.” Bringing the philanthropic work of CCfH and other organizations like it to the public eye will hopefully spark even more generous efforts within the design community. And this is not merely a fleeting topic at Columbia College. Throughout the academic year several courses will examine the topic of HIV&AIDS in an attempt to understand the role and responsibility of the media in shaping public attitudes and opinions.

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