Gran Fury: Read My Lips at Auto Italia. An archive of the seminal AIDS activist art collective.

Gran Fury, Kissing Doesn’t Kill : Greed and Indifference Do (detail), 1990, vinyl wall poster.
Courtesy of Auto Italia and Gran Fury. 

Interested in getting to grips with the history of LGBTQ+ community activism? Have you ever heard of the 1980s seminal New-York AIDS activist art collective Gran Fury (1987-1995)

Read my Lips, running at Auto Italia until 16th December, celebrates the thirtieth anniversary of Gran Fury’s formation in early 1987 by exploring their contribution to image-making and community activism through a series of print works (posters, flyers, takeaways, and archival materials).

Gran Fury appropriates the advertising strategy of billboards campaigns and guerrilla dissemination tactics to address institutional oppression, political inaction, and disinformation head-on. 

Gran Fury, named after a model of Plymouth automobile used by the New York City Police Department, decided from the outset of their queer activist practice to outline the urgency of the early AIDS crisis through a series of non-violent interventions across public spaces in New York. 

In addition, the members of Gran Fury used to describe themselves as:

” A band of individuals united in anger and dedicated to exploiting the power of art to end the AIDS crisis”.

The Pope and the Penis , Gran Fury, 1990,  vinyl wall poster (left) ; Sexism  Rears Its Unprotected Head , Gran Fury, 1988, vinyl wall poster (right). Courtesy of Auto Italia and Gran Fury.

As an example of their critical and scathing attitude to socially engaged artist practice, The Pope and the Penis (above, left), first exhibited at 1990 Venice Biennale, paired two billboard panels: one with the image of Pope with a text about “the Church anti-safe-sex-rethorics “, juxtaposed to Sexism Rears Its Unprotected Head‘s poster (above, right) with texts about women and condom use. 

Formed out of Act Up (Aids Coalition to Unleash Power) in the late 1980s, Gran Fury’s work raised awareness on the medical, moral, and political issues surrounding AIDS in a particularly critical era when conservative media, politicians such as President Ronald Regan, then New York Major Ed Koch, and the Catholic Church were pursuing an hostile policy by blocking health provisions affecting queer and minority individuals.

The exhibition of this archive then enables the audience to rethink and question the modes of direct action and protest: as Gran Fury demonstrates through their body of work, socially engaged practice can still be seen as a tool for making changes, and battling the obscurantism of conservative media and politicians in regard to LGBTQ+ rights. 

 Kissing Doesn’t Kill: Greed And Indifference Do, Gran Fury, 1990, vinyl wall poster. 
Courtesy of Auto Italia and Gran Fury. 

Kissing Doesn’t Kill strikes a chord with me, as it can be considered one of the most iconic intersectional pieces of art: the purpose of this life-size billboard is to embrace the LGBTQ+ community with an intersectional approach.

Three couples, belonging to different ethnicities and sexualities, are portrayed kissing. The project, originally commissioned by MTV and aimed at showing many more same-sex couples in the act of kissing (Kiss-In strategy), was next censored by the US government. 

Taken as a whole, the exhibition documents the history, and the aesthetics of the queer collective by instilling into visitors a desire to meditate on the urgency of HIV AIDS activism.

ACT UP flyers, Gran Fury, various dates, wheatpaste posters.
Courtesy of Auto Italia and Gran Fury.

Men Use Condoms Or Beat It, Gran Fury, 1988, stickers. 
Courtesy of Auto Italia and Gran Fury. 

Furthermore, the exhibition underscores the need for resistance and resilience by honouring the legacy of all the ancestors who fight before us. The striking impact of the graphics, and the layout of the archive communicates an overall curatorial intent of displaying the archival materials in an interactive, and open-ended fashion.

“All people with Aids are innocent”, says a banner on the door of Auto Italia, and this is to me the spirit of the exhibition: the present tense, used throughout Gran Fury’s body work, registers the timeless, and urgent approach of the collective to LGBTQ+ rights. 

Gran Fury, Read My Lips is made possible through the generous support of Omni, with additional support from Arts Council England – National Lottery Project Grants.

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