It’s all too easy to forget Covid-19 is not the first major pandemic in recent times. Since its discovery in the early 1980s, AIDS has claimed 35 million deaths worldwide. Now Birmingham plans to unveil a permanent memorial for those who have been affected by it.
For over 40 years, AIDS has devastated communities. It’s a major cause of death for younger people, many dying after being shunned by their family and sometimes even their friends. Although medical advances have now made the virus manageable here in the west at least, the total still continues to grow. Even now, it is the cause of death for around 100 to 200 people in the UK each year.
Whilst watching It’s A Sin on Channel 4, Birmingham designer Garry Jones had the idea of creating a lasting memorial for those who have been affected by AIDS. The drama, devised by award-winning writer Russell T Davies, was set in the 1980s and dramatically told the story of the early era of the AIDS pandemic, immediately transporting Garry back around 40 years. No-one watching the drama unfold could fail to be moved by the horrendous stigma of the virus.
Garry was involved with Birmingham’s World AIDS Day vigils for many years and was hugely saddened that funding for those events was stopped in 2015. He felt there was a danger that the virus’s awful history might be forgotten. That gave him the idea for a permanent memorial where people could pay their respects and remember those who were – and still are – affected by AIDS/HIV.
A plan is born
Despite the confines of lockdown, Garry used social media to put his plan into action, enlisting the help of two friends, Phil Oldershaw and Andy King. Very quickly, many others came forward to volunteer their time and a plan was put together. Following a tremendously successful fundraising effort, the memorial is set to be unveiled to the world on World AIDS Day, 1 December.
The location, on the square outside the Hippodrome Theatre, is exceptionally appropriate. Not only is it the gateway to Birmingham’s Gay Village, the community most ravaged by the virus, but sitting it outside the theatre also stands as a reminder of how very many stars of stage, screen and theatre were lost to this horrendous virus including Tony de Vit, recently awarded a blue plaque by Birmingham Civic Society. After contracting HIV, he sadly lost his battle with the virus at the young age of 40.
Hippodrome Square is also the gateway to the Chinese Quarter. AIDS has been a truly worldwide pandemic, and China certainly did not escape its ravages. Indeed, a Chinese Lion Dance will be part of the launch event. The memorial will be a true beacon for everyone to come together and remember this terrible part of recent history.
The memorial takes shape
As a designer, Garry had a clear vision for the memorial: a huge red ribbon sculpture, the iconic symbol of the virus. He got together with local sculptor Luke Perry, who specialises in monumental sculptures which commemorate under-represented peoples.
The ‘Ribbons Memorial’ was born. The two heart-shaped red ribbons stylistically form two figures, entwined as if embracing and supporting each other. They represent the dual entities of HIV and AIDS, the past and the future. They symbolise remembrance of those we have lost to AIDS whilst also celebrating those living with HIV. Standing unashamedly six metres high, the monument will serve as a reminder of the work that still needs to be done to educate and end stigma and discrimination.
The launch will take place on World AIDS Day, 1 December, from 6pm at Hippodrome Square, Hurst Street, Birmingham, B5 4TB. Along with red ribbons, another iconic symbol of the AIDS pandemic was the Memorial Quilt Project, which became the largest piece of public art in the world. Each quilt panel was made as a tribute to someone who had lost their life to AIDS.
At the launch, newly commissioned quilts will be used as a covering, making the memorial’s unveiling truly iconic, dramatic and poignant. Along with the Chinese Lion Dance mentioned earlier, the launch will also include a lantern and quilt procession, songs from three choirs, speeches and a minute’s silence.
Whilst the AIDS pandemic is inexorably linked to gay men, injecting drug users and those given infected blood, their deaths affected whole families and communities, it was set against the backdrop of the Thatcher years where AIDS was simply not a priority for the NHS. Without some very brave people unfazed by the ignorance of others, so many would have been just left to die a lonely death, abandoned by friends and family. Unfortunately, far too many were still left to die alone, due to the stigma of the virus.
Nowadays, AIDS is sometimes likened to diabetes, not curable but manageable with the right treatments. Medical advances such as PrEP make it much more difficult to pass on the virus. Let’s hope one day we might see the scourge of this pandemic being consigned to the history books. But that doesn’t mean it should be forgotten.
The organisers encourage as many people as possible to attend the launch which promises to be an unmissable evening of remembrance and celebration. That is just the beginning.
The memorial will serve as a permanent and visible reminder that the people of Birmingham certainly haven’t forgotten those affected by this dreadful virus.
Donations are still needed towards the upkeep of the memorial. Details on how to donate can be found by clicking this link.
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