A time when to be gay and HIV positive was dangerous – a response to the David McDiarmid exhibition


To say that the works of David McDiarmid are exciting, confronting and challenging would be an understatement, but it would also not do them justice. McDiarmid’s works reflect a time of change in Australian society, a time when gay men and women were becoming that little bit more visible on our televisions and in the news, but also a time when to be gay was to be marginalised, and with the advent of HIV, stigmatised.

This exciting new exhibition at the NGV Ian Potter Centre at Federation Square showcases some of McDiarmid’s better recognised works, as well as pieces that have not been seen in public before. David McDiarmid was born in Tasmania but his family moved to Victoria when he was quite young. After studying at RMIT he moved to Sydney where he joined the campaign for gay civil rights.  His works tend to reflect the issues confronting the gay and lesbian community of Australia at the time, and McDiarmid was a passionate advocate for human rights all his life.

After speaking to a number of people who knew McDiarmid it became obvious that he was a man who was very much loved and very much respected. His works do not just mirror a time, they also mirror a man very much in love with life, but also very much aware of its harshness.

The works on display cover a range of media, from fabrics to collage, from posters to holographic mosaics. Some of the images are uncompromising in their depiction of the male nude, but they aim to subvert what the ‘mainstream’ sees as degenerate and reproachful into messages of love and fun for a group that was increasingly being marginalised because of HIV.

The marginalisation of gay and lesbian people in Australia and the stigma associated with HIV are very much at the forefront of some of the pieces on display at this exhibition. The representation of the male in many of the works certainly provoke a sense of unease, almost anger in that we, as gay and lesbians, should not be denied the right to celebrate who we are, a hedonist pursuit of the fun things in life, such as sex, but there’s a twist. In celebrating ourselves we must not forget the impact of our actions, and the possible consequences of this hedonism, HIV.

McDiarmid draws on common motifs in Australian and international art. His images of the square-headed figures in the various safe-sex campaign posters reflect the works of Sidney Nolan’s “Ned Kelly” range of paintings. Likewise his use of everyday disposable items in other works draws on the work of Andy Warhol.

For many visitors to this exhibition some of the images are sure to conjure up memories of past lives, for others it will provide a window into a time not that long ago when to be gay and HIV positive was dangerous.

By David O’Keefe

The David McDiarmid exhibition is on at the Ian Potter Centre, NGV Australia, Federation Square, 9 May – 31 August 2014.

One thought on “A time when to be gay and HIV positive was dangerous – a response to the David McDiarmid exhibition

  1. I knew David McDiarmid and I regret I will miss the exhibition as I am travelling overseas. David O’Keefe’s evaluation does David’s memory justice and I am pleased he is receiving the recognition he deserves.

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