Daily Telegraph: Qtopia Sydney remembering the HIV/AIDS epidemic through Ward 17 South
by Jonathon Moran
The most traumatic event in modern queer history is being memorialised in a haunting exhibition that provides a taste of what Sydney’s first rainbow museum will offer.
Qtopia Sydney is honouring the work, lives and legacy of those who were on the frontline of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s at St Vincent’s Hospital’s Ward 17 South.
“The exhibition is about people,” curator and respected academic Dr Liz Bradshaw said.
“It is about the people we lost and it is about the long-time survivors, but it is also about incredible people doing incredible things for the community fighting for our lives basically and that in itself has changed our culture. There are a lot of people who would have been our friends and family today that aren’t here and it is the richness in those stories that is lost if we don’t have a complex understanding of this difficult time.”
The Ward 17 South exhibition will open on Friday at the National Art School in Darlinghurst, just metres away from the site of the original ward that was disbanded in 2007.
John Waight Qtopia Sydney board member and curator Dr Liz Bradshaw at the Ward 17 South Exhibition. Picture: Jonathan Ng
It is one of two exhibitions being launched around World Pride with the Bandstand at nearby Green Park housing Qtopia Sydney’s inaugural space.
From the first diagnosis in 1982 to the end of 2009, some 6776 people died of AIDS in Australia. Many more took their own lives.
Globally, according to the World Health Organisation, it is estimated that HIV has killed more than 40 million people to date.
The increasing effectiveness of treatments now means people with HIV can live long healthy lives. And today, medication can prevent both the progression to AIDS and the transmission of HIV. With medication, the virus becomes undetectable and therefore cannot be transmitted.
Since 2013, ACON has worked to eliminate transmission in NSW altogether.
“A lot of people died. Everyone who lived through that time will always hold the grief of that experience and that trauma and that loss,” Dr Bradshaw said.
“The epidemic has shaped our community for 40 years. It was a huge turning point when being gay was still criminal everywhere except South Australia when HIV came along. That generation of gay liberation was only a few years old and suddenly we were hit by an illness that no one understood, everybody died and the medicine was just attempting to manage the opportunistic infections initially and trying to find out what was going on.”
Australia was instrumental in leading global HIV/AIDS efforts, with Sydney’s St Vincent’s Hospital, specifically Ward 17 South, at the centre of that.
Qtopia board member and head of First People’s Programs at the National Art School, John Waight, said the difficult time in queer history must be remembered.
“If you don’t know your past, you don’t know your future,” said Waight. “People need to know this history because out of the tragedy, rights were gained. The interviews with survivors also highlighted an immense amount of courage, love and life. People used humour to get through this thing together. Of course it is a terribly sad and difficult time to remember but it is also a story of hope and resilience.”
Mr Waight noted that through the Covid pandemic, queer people were among the first to take up the vaccine.
“I absolutely think people were retraumatised and reminded of that (HIV/AIDS) time,” he said. “It (Covid) is a very different medical and social event in the sense that people started working on a vaccine straight away and it was 15 years before people started working on a HIV vaccine and that is political and about changing times.”
The old Darlinghurst Police Station at Taylor Square is the proposed site for Qtopia Sydney.
The museum space has been years in the making and will cover off the gamut of Australia’s rainbow history, from First Nation’s through to today and the future.
Those wanting to get involved are encouraged to register via qtopiasydney.com.au.
Image Curator Dr Liz Bradshaw and Head of First People’s Programs John Waight at the National Art School. Picture: Jonathan Ng