Sue Coe’s “The AIDS Suite,” opening Thursday at the Harvey Cushing/John Hay Whitney Medical Library, showcases drawings of patients suffering from HIV/AIDS.
The exhibit features 27 drawings and prints by Coe, a nationally renowned activist artist and social commentator whose work the library began collecting two years ago, Susan Wheeler, the library’s curator of prints and drawings, said. Works depict doctors surrounding dying patients, highlighting a compassionate solidarity between caregiver and caretaker. Coe completed “The AIDS Suite” while observing patients in Dr. Eric Avery’s Galveston, Texas office at the University of Texas Medical Branch.
“[Coe’s] drawings are powerful visual testimonies and convey not only what it was like to be a patient … but also risks [taken] by caretakers,” Wheeler said. “There were so many aspects of this illness that occurred at that time when a great social change hadn’t really happened, and all of this is part of what you see and what you feel in these drawings.”
The exhibit will also feature pieces from Coe’s 2006 portrait series “Through Her Own Eyes,” which focuses on HIV-positive female inmates in a Texas prison.
Much of the significance in Coe’s art, Wheeler explained, rests in its capacity to destroy the stigma against AIDS patients by illuminating the physical and emotional experience of those suffering with the disease, as well as the medical professionals tasked with their care. She added that young audiences might have a more difficult time imagining the horrors of the AIDS epidemic, which reached its peak in the 1980s and 1990s, than those who reached adulthood as cases of the virus grew in frequency. Coe’s work, however, provides a platform for viewers to discuss medical ethics in relation to the drawings’ subjects, and initiates a conversation about a topic that is often difficult to discuss openly.
The show is already capturing the attention of individuals from a wide range of academic interests and disciplines — both at Yale and beyond. Coe’s work, which has been featured in The New York Times, has sparked interest beyond the greater New Haven area. Wheeler said she has already had visitors from Boston travel to Cedar Street for the new exhibition.
“The AIDS Suite” will complement the other prints and drawings displayed in the library, which trace the history of medical issues and events. Wheeler called the library’s acquisition of more than 40 Coe originals “an important addition to our collection.”
Brock Staskawicz ’17, a chemical engineering and history of art double major, said he is eager to view “The AIDS Suite” because of its interdisciplinary nature.
“It is exciting to see the science and art world meet together to bring change — it seems such a rare thing that these two work together so seamlessly and with such purpose,” Staskawicz said.
Art history major Natalie Sheng ’17 noted the political importance of Coe’s artwork. Sheng said Coe’s muted palettes and dichotomy of crowds surrounding single points make an effective statement about AIDS patients.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 1.2 million people in the United States are currently living with HIV.