Keeping with the theme of November’s post about Niki de Saint Phalle’s political views, our December blog on World Aids Day highlights the artist’s intention to create awareness about the disease and inspire the public to fight against it.
Before there was a name for it, AIDS was already used as a means of discrimination against the gay community. It provided the perfect tool for those who feared the change in social behaviors taking place in society. Abruptly people diagnosed with AIDS were confronted by the worst kind of public hate. Niki de Saint Phalle felt she had to take part in the fight against the hate and discrimination that was surfacing. She knew many people who were affected, mostly gay men, some of whom she cared for deeply. Her personal battle against an auto-immune disease and her many relationships with professionals in the scientific and medical community helped frame her course of action.
From 1983 to 1986 Niki de Saint Phalle wrote and illustrated AIDS: You Can’t Catch It Holding Hands working with Swiss immunologist and AIDS specialist Prof. Silvio Barandun. Written in the form of a letter to her son Philip, she used her characteristically colorful and joyous style to deliver straightforward information about the transmission of HIV from unprotected sex and needle-sharing by intravenous drug use.
In the 1980’s the social climate surrounding the topic of AIDS made the publication of this book difficult. Most people were scared and uninformed because homosexuality was not accepted or discussed. Talking about sex or infidelity was considered indecent. It took three years for this collaborative humanitarian project between an artist and a scientist to come to fruition.
First published in 1986 in the USA in English by Lapis Press, the book was then released the same year in Germany by Bucher Verlag and in 1987 in France by Flammarion under the title: Le Sida, c’est facile à éviter. The book went on to be translated and published in Japanese and Italian. In total, 70 000 books were distributed for free in schools. All the benefits were donated to AIDES, the first French association fighting against AIDS.
Here’s what Doctor Willy Rozenbaum, co-discoverer of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and chairman of the French National Council on AIDS since 2003 said about their initiative in 1987:
“Niki de Saint Phalle […] proposes to de-dramatize the subject by informing us about the disease, its prevention and the attitude that one should have towards the people affected. Presented as a drawing book and in a positive almost humorous note, Niki de Saint Phalle offers us, for example, to return to Romance. Niki de Saint Phalle shows us how an artist can help convey an optimistic message on a serious subject.”
Source : Press Release, June 1987, NCAF Archives
During this time many of Niki’s friends started getting sick. By 1987 funerals had become all to frequent occurrences. AIDS first attacked the gay community and many very close to Niki succumbed to what she called “the new plague”. The artist was greatly distressed about all the funerals of her younger friends taking place. She felt deep despair as she watched young men and women dying from a generation which had so recently embraced sexual freedom.
In reaction to what was going on, Niki de Saint Phalle pursued her interest in science and disease. She met and befriended many scientists including Dr. Haseltine of Harvard Medical School who was quoted in People Magazine when referring to the AIDS epidemic in January of 1988 as follows: This book is crucial.
In 1990, she produced an animated movie based on her book with the help of her son Philip for France Sécurité Sociale. The movie was shown at the Museum of Arts Décoratifs in Paris, along with an exhibition of drawings and a republication of the book for the French audience.
The book, slightly updated, was for the last time published by l’Agence Française de Lutte Contre Le Sida (now integrated to the French Department of Health) and distributed in schools all around France.
Niki de Saint Phalle’s early and continuous involvement in educating the public about AIDS demonstrates the artists’ long term interest in both the political and social aspects of HIV/AIDS. The Niki Charitable Art Foundation is planning to republish her book in as many languages as possible.
For more information about how to get involved on #WorldAidsDay consult these organizations: